As the Columbus Crew prepares to trade fireworks Saturday with its oldest rival, D.C. United, for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the 0-2-5 start that launched the local club's title defense seems like a mere mirage in the tailwinds of the midsummer haze.

As the Columbus Crew prepares to trade fireworks Saturday with its oldest rival, D.C. United, for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the 0-2-5 start that launched the local club's title defense seems like a mere mirage in the tailwinds of the midsummer haze.

After such a pitiful opening stretch, who would have believed the Columbus Crew would have a chance to claim first place by Independence Day?

The Crew, that's who. From the preseason to the present, Columbus (5-3-7) has been adamant that although it's tougher to defend a championship than to win one, they haven't lost their MLS Cup-winning mojo.

They've validated those boasts by climbing the standings with workmanlike consistency and not a hint of desperation.

Let's break out the midseason report card:

Forwards: B

Technically, league-leading goal-scorer (10) and reigning MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto is a forward, so the Crew is doing well up top on balance. But striker Alejandro Moreno has been underwhelming and reserves Jason Garey and Stephen Lenhart have failed to make a mark.

Midfielders: B

Like most positions, the Crew midfield took a while to find the right fit. Emmanuel Ekpo in the middle was a disaster, Adam Moffat remained perennially injured, and an injury-hampered Robbie Rogers struggled to regain his all-star form. But they seem to be figuring things out.

Defense: B+

Too many dumb tackles have led to red cards, penalty kicks and dangerous set pieces. But the emergence of Eric Brunner and Jed Zayner as viable starters and the return of injured Frankie Hejduk have helped stabilize the Columbus back line.

Goalkeeping: C+

William Hesmer started the season poorly before getting injured. His replacement, Andy Gruenebaum, was undefeated until the June 20 match at Dallas, but rarely because of any spectacular play on his part. Hesmer showed signs of a renaissance in last week's win over New York, but on balance the goalmouth has been one of the Crew's vulnerable points thus far.

Depth: A-

If Columbus is to snag the top spot from United, they'll have to do it without starters Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers, who will be with the U.S. national team. But missing key pieces of the puzzle has been a constant for the Crew thanks to injuries, suspensions and call-ups, and it hasn't seemed to phase them yet thanks to the likes of Brunner, Zayner and Kevin Burns.

Coaching: B

Robert Warzycha made some truly puzzling substitutions earlier this season, and his team developed a nasty habit of surrendering late leads, a sure sign of poor mental preparation. But he never panicked, and slowly but surely, he's starting to show he's fit to be skipper.

What midterm grade would you give the Crew? To comment on this story, click to ColumbusAlive.com