The first 16 matches of the 2013 MLS season have been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, twists and turns for the Columbus Crew.
The triumphs of the season so far have included a 2-0 home win against the first-place Montreal Impact and a 3-3-2 road record, while the pitfalls have been three losses in all competitions to the rival Chicago Fire, losing starters Eddie Gaven and Gláuber to season-ending knee injuries and just two wins at Crew Stadium in 2013.
Despite the mixed bag of results, the Black & Gold remain confident as they look to close out the first half of the season with a road victory against fourth-place Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night (8:30 p.m. ET / FOX Sports Ohio) to start a two-match road trip before heading to Los Angeles to face the defending MLS Cup champion Galaxy on the Fourth of July. The Crew sits just three points behind Sporting in the Eastern Conference standings, in sixth place.
"We're a tight-knit group of guys that still has confidence," goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum said Thursday. "We're still in this thing. A couple wins in a couple tough road games, and we could be looking at a whole different season."
The club entered the season focused on returning to the MLS Cup playoffs after missing out for the first time in five seasons in 2012. With a 5-6-5 record, the Black & Gold still have a fighting chance with 18 matches remaining.
Added midfielder Tony Tchani: "We still believe we can overcome the difficulties. We know when we look in the standings, we're still kind of in the running. We're almost halfway through the season. We need a couple good games, especially these games on the road.
"Winning one or both is going to put us back in the playoff spot."
In his first match back from three 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers with Costa Rica against the Chicago Fire last week, striker Jairo Arrieta played primarily on the wing while Dominic Oduro spearheaded the attack. The two swapped roles at different points in the match to give the Crew offense a variety of options. A similar situation could occur against Sporting on Saturday.
"Obviously there were some things I did wrong, but there were also things I did right," Arrieta said. "I realize I need to improve some things and keep doing what I did right. Working in the week will help, hopefully on Saturday I can have a better performance."
Added Oduro: "It's been great, we've been switching back and forth during practice. In the game, we'll see how that works."
Arrieta scored nine goals last season to earn a share of the team's scoring lead with Eddie Gaven despite only playing in 18 matches as a midseason signing. Arrieta has struggled to find cosistency in 2013 as he juggles club and country duties, only finding the net once. Oduro, on the other hand, has tallied seven times this season to solidify a regular spot in the Crew lineup.
Though it was is his first game on the wing for the Crew, Arrieta is happy to contribute in any way possible.
"It's not a position that I don't know or I haven't played," the Costa Rican explained. "Obviously I like to play forward, but the team needed me to play that position.
"The team is first. Any way I can help the team, I will."
BEWARE THE LONG THROW
An athletic frontline coupled with Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic's ability to launch throw-in opportunities into dangerous areas, Sporting Kansas City has become notorious around MLS for its scoring capabilities from the touchline.
Defending against the throw-in will be key in the Crew's recipe for success on Saturday against Sporting.
"When you have the type of athletes that they have -- pretty much everyone they have up front is athletic -- that produces a problem when those guys are making smart runs and Besler can launch the ball as far as he wants," Gruenebaum explained.
"It's just one of those things that for whatever reason, it's hard to explain why it's so hard to defend."
The Crew fell victim to a throw-in assist earlier this season in its 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire on April 20 when Fire defender Jalil Anibaba catapulted a throw deep into the penalty area to find Jeff Larentowicz for the tally.
Focus and communication will be the prime defense for Sporting's throw-in potency this weekend.
"We have to stay focused, keep our heads on a swivel," Gruenebaum said. "You have to be able to see the runs being made as well as the flight of the ball. Communication helps if you've got a guy flashing in front of you, or if you're picked. It all happens so quick, it all happens simultaneously.
"They're going to use it at all different points on the field. We have to be ready for it."