Believe it or not, the Colorado Rapids are one of the best teams in Major League Soccer this year. The Denver-based team wasn't expected to make much noise this season, but they have put together a quality start that sees them sitting second in the Western Conference and one of the better teams in points per game at 1.56.
On Friday night, the Columbus Crew take to the road to battle these Rapids, looking for just their second win since the opening month of the season.
Colorado is a different team. Led by former player and new head coach Pablo Mastroeni, this team has turned things around after just barely making the playoffs a year ago.
"It will be fun," Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter said of going up against Mastroeni for the first time on the sidelines.
"He's a friend and he's a competitive guy and I think it's going to be fun."
The former central midfielder has his team playing good soccer on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the Rapids are having no issue scoring goals. They have bagged 23 in 2014, good for seventh best in the league, and have five players with two or more goals and nine players who have found the net.
Vicente Sanchez and Deshorn Brown have done much of the damage for Colorado this season, totaling 11 goals between them.
Only five teams in MLS have allowed fewer goals than the Rapids with much of the credit going to goalkeeper Clint Irwin, who is tied for sixth best in the league with 1.17 goals against average.
Berhalter sees the answer to shutting down their offense and breaking down their defense to be one and the same.
"One of the factors is going to be how we can keep the ball and playing against a team that hopefully will want to play," he said this week.
"If you look at the game on Sunday, [Dallas] had 10 players behind the ball almost the whole game and made it very difficult for us to break down, especially in those conditions. I expect Colorado to open up and really be aggressive and want to attack us and that suits our game."
The possession game is always important for Columbus, but midfielder Tony Tchani believes it might be more important against this team because of the type of weapons they have.
"They have those guys that are really fast," he said. "We just have to be aware of those pacey guys because we can keep the ball, keep the ball and not lose it in crucial areas because if we lose it, they can with one or two passes, the guys can be free. We just have to be careful. Their midfield, I think we can take care of that, I feel like we just need to take care of their pacey guys."
Another issue that will play its part with fast players is the altitude. Any team that travels to Denver has to deal with the factors of the Mile High City, but it is just a part of the MLS schedule says midfielder Wil Trapp.
"This is just part of the grind," he said. "It's not easy for anyone so we can't make excuses."
Berhalter, who had experience playing in Colorado from 2009 to 2011, believes the best way to deal with the altitude is to spend as little time as possible in the city.
"From my experience, you go out late, you get in at the last possible minute, take a couple aspirin to thin the blood, and in warm ups you really push over that hump," he said.
"You're going be tired in warm ups but you need to go through it because in altitude you do get a second wind and you want to try and get that earlier so you don't hit the wall in the first 30 minutes and take a long time to recover."
Berhalter knows something about getting results in Colorado. As a player, he recorded a 2-0-1 in Denver and will look to improve on that on July 4.
He will buoyed by the improved fitness of his team this week as they work their way back to full health.
"Pipa looked great today in training," Berhalter said of Federico Higuain this week. "Wil's getting back to his fitness. We're all good. Ethan's on his way back so it's a positive outlook."
Trapp started Sunday's game against FC Dallas, making it 68 minutes on a very hot day, and Higuain played 22 minutes coming off the bench in both players' return to MLS action. Ethan Finlay is still coming back from injury but was very active this week in training as he attempts to get back to health.
This game is one of three road dates for the Crew this month as they look to get things going in the right direction heading towards the MLS Cup Playoffs. Midfielder/defender Bernardo Anor thinks that going on the road will be a good challenge for this team.
"I think it's a good test for us to see what we're really made of and see if we can do the same things we did against Dallas here: moving the ball, keeping possession of the ball, and being dangerous in the final third," he said.
"They're a great team. We've just got to be careful and keep doing our thing and I think we'll be good."
The Black and Gold currently sit on 19 points and are tied for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but multiple teams around them have played fewer games.
The summer months can make or break an MLS season and the Crew are entering a crucial point in the campaign. A win on the road may set up Columbus for a big July that could catapult them up the standings in the East.