It’s here again, the Big West slate of the season. Time for another passionate campaign of highs and lows as the UCSB men’s soccer team looks to improve off of last year’s abrupt postseason finish, a 2-1 semifinals loss to Cal State Fullerton. UCSB returns to home territory with a 2-4-2 record.

What better way to test the Gauchos’ current state while on a two-match win streak than a matchup versus the team that originally knocked them out of the Big West Tournament? Enter Cal State Fullerton, a 5-3-1 team fresh out of its non-conference schedule and still with a foul taste in its mouth after a 2-1 double OT loss against CSUN in the Big West Finals.

Nonetheless, it’s soon to be game time at Harder Stadium. Pair UCSB’s return home with the new school year beginning this Thursday and you’ll likely get the result of “Soccer Heaven.”

The non-conference period of the season was kind to the Fullerton Titans. They are currently undefeated in their last four matches, all of which were at home. CSUF has won three of its last four matches, experiencing a 1-1 draw against the University of San Diego last Sunday.

Notably, the Titans have been shut out in each of their three losses, including their worst performance of the year is a very lopsided 5-0 loss to the Portland Pilots on Sept. 4, the same Pilots whom the Gauchos bested just last week after a close 1-0 affair. A keynote to still keep in mind, however, would be their goal count, as the Titans put up a very productive 10 goals in nine games.

Rodney Michael steals the ball from the opposing team. Stephen Manga/Daily Nexus

Meanwhile, UCSB has had its fair share of struggles. The Gauchos are currently below .500 following some inconsistent non-conference performances, which in most part were due to their lack of goal production, as they only scored five goals in eight matches.

The greatest positive for UCSB has been its recent undefeated stretch. That being said, those wins all took place at home and are a part of a current five-game homestay that will conclude this weekend. One thing’s for certain: Both teams will undoubtedly wish to keep their winning ways by upsetting the other’s momentum early.

A clear key player to be observed on the Titans’ end is junior midfielder, Ross McPhie. With a respectable four goals and one assist on the year, McPhie’s production, or lack thereof, may very well be the deciding factor for the Gauchos come Thursday night.

As his club’s leading goal scorer, he has also been on a roll lately with three goals in his last four starts. Not to mention, he also netted the match’s only goal last week for the Titans’ 1-0 victory over UNLV. The Gaucho coaching staff will surely keep McPhie in their sights while creating the game plan.

The potential for Gaucho glory Thursday, however, may very well still be in reach from a defensive viewpoint. Over the last two matches, UCSB has only allowed one score, which occurred from its exhibition match versus Club America’s U-20 team. Similarly, Fullerton has only allowed two scores in its past four games, as they’ll try to stop UCSB’s own leading goal scorer, sophomore forward Ignacio Tellechea.

Historically speaking, the Gauchos vs. Titans conference matchup has favored the former, as Thursday’s home side UCSB leads with a 31-26-3 series record. Currently, however, Santa Barbara is ranked last in the Big West Northern standings due to their low win percentage of .375.

Meanwhile, Cal State Fullerton boasts a .611 and sits atop the Big West South with the best overall record. While significant, what matters most will officially begin Thursday with conference play.

Kickoff between UCSB and Cal State Fullerton starts Thursday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. at Harder Stadium.

A version of this story appeared on p. 7 of the Sept. 28, 2017, edition of the Daily Nexus.