In need of points following last week's home loss against the Chicago Fire, the Crew heads West to begin a two-game road trip against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET / FOX Sports Ohio) before flying to Los Angeles for an Independence Day clash with the Galaxy. Sporting currently sits ahead of the Black & Gold in fourth-place of the Eastern Conference standings on 23 points.
Though Kansas City is winless in its last four matches, Sporting welcomed U.S. National Team starters Matt Besler and Graham Zusi back to the fold in last week's 2-2 draw with FC Dallas. With the return of its American core to the lineup, Kansas City will look for its first win at Sporting Park since May 5 on Saturday against the Black & Gold.
"[Besler and Zusi] are just solid every game," Crew defender Josh Williams said. "You watch one of their games and those are two guys who are always in the mix somewhere. Whether it's a free kick with Zusi's service or scoring a goal. Besler, whoever he plays with back there, he's always solid.
"Those are two names penciled in the lineup every week and you know what you're going to get out of them."
Columbus went 1-1-1 against Sporting Kansas City last season. Expect another even, yet physical battle when the rivalry -- which dates back to MLS' inaugural season in 1996 -- gets renewed on Saturday.
"For the last two years, [Sporting has] really stepped up," Head Coach Robert Warzycha explained. "With the new stadium, they've built a new team and won conference championships and the Open Cup. They're a good team. It's always good to play against teams like that."
Added Williams: "Our athleticism matches up pretty well with their athleticism, we're two of the more athletic teams in the League. From our standpoint, we look at them as one of the best teams in the League. They're always at the top of the table.
"Especially when you go into a stadium like that, it's a packed house and their crowd gets into it, we get up for games like that."
SET PIECES CRUCIAL
As a result of both teams' physical play, the judgment of Saturday's match official, Juan Guzman, could weigh heavy on both sides' gameplans.
"I think depends on the referee and what he allows us to do," Warzycha said. "I don't think it's up to us. We're going to play as hard as we can, but their game is always a lot of fouls and hopefully the referee will be on top of that."
If Guzman's whistle is active on Saturday, dead-ball situations will be key on both ends of the field.
"Set pieces will be huge, especially in this league with the athleticism," Williams explained. "It's a big, physical League. Last year, they scored on a set piece real early. It's something we definitely need to shore up defensively.
"Offensively, it's been a while since we've scored on a dead-ball. We're looking to get on the end of one here soon and put one in the back of the net."
BRINGING PRESSURE EARLY
In each of the Crew's three meetings with Sporting in 2012, Kansas City went ahead within the first 10 minutes of play. To combat that trend, Warzycha and the Crew will look to press the home team early for the initial goal of the match.
The Black & Gold are 5-1-2 this season when scoring first this season, their only loss coming in last week's 2-1 defeat against the Chicago Fire. While Sporting Park can be a daunting venue, the visiting Crew does not plan on sitting back and letting Kansas City dictate the pace and possession of the match on Saturday.
"I don't think you want to bunker-in," Warzycha said. "Because if you bunker-in, you're fueling their fire. You have to go at them and try to score first. That's the bottom line. The last thing they'll do is drop back.
"It's going to be important to start the game off strong."
Sporting Head Coach Peter Vermes fielded his familiar 4-3-3 last week against FC Dallas. Besler slotted back into central defense alongside Frenchman Aurélien Collin in one of Major League Soccer's top backlines.
Following his red card against Dallas, C.J. Sapong will be unavailable to Vermes on Saturday. Zusi could move up from the midfield to join leading scorer Claudio Bieler and Kei Kamara on the frontline against the Crew. Teal Bunbury, Benny Feilhaber, Jacob Peterson and Soony Saad are also candidates to replace the suspended Sapong in the Sporting attack.