When Kyle Martino started hearing - and reading - about just how bad his Columbus Crew side was after the club's 0-3 start, he took solace in what he remembers being said about his team after three games last season. The 23-year-old midfielder knew the Crew wasn't as bad as their record then, just as it wasn't as good as their 2-0-1 and 3-1-2 start in 2003.
"After the first three games last year, the whole league and all the critics were talking about how we were such an amazing team and how unbeatable we were," he said. "People said we were going to win MLS Cup and that no one would touch us."
Of course, things soon changed for Columbus. After the hot start, a 2-6-3 run followed right through to the All-Star break. Even once the team's bad string of injuries finally let up by mid-August, it was too much to overcome, and the club failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
That's why as frustrated as Martino was with the Crew's woeful start, he knew that it wasn't indicative of where the team stood compared to the rest of the teams in the league, and that it didn't necessarily mean that they would stay in the Eastern Conference cellar for long.
"At the beginning of the season," he said, "it's so hard to put a spin on a team and make judgment because every team has a period, especially at the beginning, when they're either doing great or doing bad. Anything can change."
And it has.
After grinding out two ties - and two all-important points - against Dallas and D.C. United, Columbus has won two consecutive matches, including a huge 3-1 road victory against Chicago last weekend that leapfrogged the side over New England into fourth place in the Eastern Conference. It also upped the team's unbeaten streak to four matches.
After the Chicago match - one that the Fire largely carried the play in, but failed to finish on several occasions - Martino was outspoken, saying it was a message to all of the team's critics.
"We are trying to make a statement to people in the league, to other teams and to critics that are making judgments before they know everything about us, before they've seen us play some solid games," he said on Sunday. "We don't like to do it with words, we like to do it with play. We're trying to get back to the people that have unfairly judged against us and to give our fans something to look forward to when we come back home."
When asked about his comments two days later, Martino said that he wasn't responding to any particular newspaper or online column. It was more of a general response to any doubters. In other words, there wasn't any poster-board material out there or quotes from anyone that stuck in the minds of the players - not that there wasn't enough of it out there.
"We never really brought it up or mentioned it," he said. "Most players are harder on themselves than anyone else can be. As a team and as individuals we said it wasn't good enough and it needed to be better. We were the ones that thought we weren't doing well, and we were the ones that thought we needed a change.
"We weren't feeding off other people's criticism."
Actually, the opposite started to happen. The team began to feed off the optimism coming out of the locker room from a few of the veterans, particularly captain Robin Fraser.
"When he talks people listen," said Martino, now in his third season with Columbus. "He's done a great job so far of keeping things in perspective for us. He kept saying that we're a great team and that things will come together for us. To hear that from someone who has seen so much in this league and commands so much respect, definitely helps build confidence. I think having him being in our locker room, making comments and pulling people aside has really helped us, and will continue to in the long run."
For Martino, the 2004 season has been different from the start, as it has brought about a change to his role. With the addition of Simon Elliott from the L.A. Galaxy, the ball seems to run through him from a much deeper position than it did last year when it ran through Martino from his attacking midfield role. That's changed even more in recent weeks ever since head coach Greg Andrulis and his staff have made the switch to a 3-5-2 system from their usual 4-4-2. It's pushed Martino into an even higher slot in the midfield to the point where he's playing almost like a third forward at times, and is often adding pressure on opposing defenders as the first line of defense.
It's been an adjustment, thus far, as the former MLS Rookie of the Year has had to stay patient during matches, rather than trying to kickstart the offense himself by coming back deep into the midfield as he did last season.
"It's definitely a change," he said. "This year, I stay up by the forwards and let others behind me do the building."
It's allowed him to focus primarily on his game in the attacking third of the field.
"That's where I feel most comfortable," he said. "It's where I can take risks, try to make plays, and use a little bit of the flair that I have. I've been labeled as the attacking midfield player and I have a lot of responsibility to play-make.
"Now that I have great support behind me and I'm not tracking back to the 18, I can expend a little more energy up front. I can kind of be that extra forward to unbalance their defense, either running at them when they have the ball to force mistakes, getting the ball and slipping it to the forwards, or running at them with the ball and getting into the box."
That's exactly what he did on Sunday, making something out of nothing to score the team's second, and ultimately game-winning, goal against Chicago. After receiving an innocent pass at midfield from right back Stephen Herdsman, Martino streaked down to the middle of the field on a run of about 25 yards before attempting a 1-2 with Michael Ritch at the top of the box. Even though his pass got deflected by Logan Pause, he didn't hesitate on his run through the box and received the ball back behind the Chicago defense. To finish the play off, the Westport, Conn., native froze goalkeeper Henry Ring by slowing up and feinting slightly to his right before dribbling him to his left and slotting it home.
His first tally of the season went a long way in clinching the victory for Columbus, which now has the team in a much different situation returning home to Crew Stadium this Saturday against reigning MLS Cup champion San Jose Earthquakes.
"It takes the pressure off of us, definitely," said Martino. "We can stop playing with our backs to the wall, or playing like we're down, or playing like we're really pressed for a win. We can really start concentrating on playing the game we know we can play - attractive soccer where we move the ball around and feel comfortable.
"With that win, we realized that we can beat anyone at anytime. I really don't think that was one of our better performances, but the fact that we came in to Chicago and we put away the chances that they gave us is a major positive. And I think that gives us a lot of confidence going into these next games. Now we can make other teams adjust to our style and make teams come and beat us."
Four quick ones
Questions for Colorado Rapids striker John Spencer
Funniest player on your team: Nat (Albino Rhino) Borchers.
Funniest player not on your team: "The Phantom." He knows who he is.
Best movie line to quote: "Oink, Oink" - Babe: Pig in the City.
Where were you when John O'Brien scored against Portugal: Sleeping.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. His column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.