Sporting Kansas City was embarrassed last weekend in MLS and will attempt to build on a quarterfinal victory in the U.S. Open Cup when league play resumes Friday against the Chicago Fire.
Sporting lost 4-0 at the Philadelphia Union last week as its record slumped to 2-4-2 since opening the season with seven straight wins.
Despite the struggles, which started with a 1-0 defeat to the Portland Timbers in late April, Kansas City (9-4-2) is just one point out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
With D.C. United and Red Bull New York both within reach, Sporting can return to the summit with a win against Chicago (7-5-3) at Livestrong Sporting Park. And considering Kansas City has played fewer matches, it would be an important step.
Especially after the season hit a new low against the Union last weekend.
Sporting was lucky enough to have to return to play Tuesday in the Open Cup, and it defeated USL PRO side Dayton Dutch Lions, 3-0, to make the semifinals - where it will play at Philadelphia on July 11.
"We're a little banged up, but that's nothing we aren't used to. We've got a lot more games coming up during this busy stretch, and we'll try to win them all. Our squad is big enough to deal with those challenges," said Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi.
"We've got a couple league games coming up, then we'll turn our attention to that semifinal in Philadelphia."
Sporting forward C.J. Sapong admitted the busy schedule has been tough, but the team "can handle it."
"We're definitely feeling the effects of the crowded schedule we have. But the good thing is everybody on this team can step up," he said. "Everyone on this team can have a positive impact.
"We have injuries and fatigue, but we can handle it."
Sporting will need to be ready to defend its 6-1-0 home record against Chicago this week, as the Fire visit off wins over New York and Columbus.
Marco Pappa and Dominic Oduro scored early against the Crew last week, but the Fire lost Gonzalo Segares inside the half-hour mark to a red card and managed to hold on for an important 2-1 win.
"I'm proud of the guys and the way that they competed, not giving up," Chicago coach Frank Klopas said. "It's never easy playing shorthanded."
Another important sign from last week was defender Arne Friedrich returned for the first time since a hamstring injury in May. He was just used off the bench against Columbus, but will give the Fire a boost as his fitness returns.
"It was important to get in the game because we were under pressure playing with 10 men," Friedrich said. "I'm very happy that we won the game because we were playing a conference (foe) and we could get some space in the standings."
Just six points off the top of the East on 24 points, Chicago can pull within two points of Sporting with a huge road and Eastern win Friday. And like K.C., Chicago has played fewer matches than D.C. and New York.