Here's the deal, Crew fans: By the time you read this, I'll be two days into an 18-day trip out of the country. Due to my impending absence, we won't be running Crew Cuts again until the Aug. 27 issue.

Here's the deal, Crew fans: By the time you read this, I'll be two days into an 18-day trip out of the country. Due to my impending absence, we won't be running Crew Cuts again until the Aug. 27 issue.

Thus, I want to take this week's column to explain a major element of the Crew's season that will start to unfold while I'm gone: the CONCACAF Champions League.

Like Europe's famed UEFA Champions League, this CONCACAF edition is an international tournament that pits the region's best clubs against each other. But instead of Euro squads like FC Barcelona and Manchester United, it features teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean: the likes of Saprissa, Cruz Azul and our very own Columbus Crew.

Columbus qualified for the Champions League twice over by winning last year's MLS Cup and the Supporters' Shield for the best regular-season record. Other MLS clubs in the tournament include Houston Dynamo (Western Conference champion), DC United (Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion) and New York Red Bulls (MLS Cup runner-up).

Also, Toronto FC is representing Canada in the Champions League despite never winning any sort of championship in its three-year history. Apparently it pays to be your country's only MLS squad.

During the group stage, which begins Tuesday, Aug. 18, at Crew Stadium, Columbus will play home-and-home series against three opponents. This means the Crew will have six midweek matches sprinkled between its regular MLS schedule, some of which will require international travel.

(Note: This also means three extra home games, which will be Special Games A, B and C for season ticket holders.)

Such an intense timetable has been known to run MLS teams ragged - just ask the New England Revolution, who hobbled through last year's MLS campaign - but Columbus is hoping to get healthy in time to take advantage of its significant depth. The Crew is also looking into adding Venezuelan forward Emilio Renteria to bolster its attack.

CONCACAF Champions League Schedule

(Home Team listed first; all times U.S. Eastern)

Tuesday, Aug. 18

Columbus Crew (USA) vs. Puerto Rico Islanders (PUR), 8 p.m.

Wednesday, Aug. 26

Cruz Azul (MEX) or Herediano (CRC) vs. Columbus Crew (USA), 10 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 16

Saprissa (CRC) vs. Columbus Crew (USA), 10 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 23

Columbus Crew (USA) vs. Cruz Azul (MEX) or Herediano (CRC), 8 p.m.

Tuesday, Sept. 29

Columbus Crew (USA) vs. Saprissa (CRC), 8 p.m.

Tuesday, Oct. 20

Puerto Rico Islanders (PUR) vs. Columbus Crew (USA), 8 p.m.