The Columbus Crew is in the midst of a two-week break from competition. The respite couldn't have come at a better time for the Crew (10-4-9), who kept very busy in August and have an even more strenuous schedule coming up to close out the season.

The Columbus Crew is in the midst of a two-week break from competition. The respite couldn't have come at a better time for the Crew (10-4-9), who kept very busy in August and have an even more strenuous schedule coming up to close out the season.

The pause wasn't well-timed for Alive, though. We haven't run a Crew Cuts column for almost a month because I was out of the country for a few weeks then briefly sidelined by a blood clot in my leg. (Damn cabin pressure!) And now that I'm available to write about the team again, they've been turned loose for a week of vacation.

While I was gone, Columbus beat some of the weaker clubs in MLS to run its winning streak to five matches and build a healthy lead in the Eastern Conference standings. But in the past week, the Crew suffered a humiliating 5-0 loss at Mexico's Cruz Azul in CONCACAF Champions League play and returned to MLS action with a 1-0 defeat at lowly New York, failing to build its first-place cushion.

After a pitiful 0-2-5 start, the Crew will need every point it can get during the season's stretch run to ensure home-field advantage in the playoffs. Let's look ahead at the obstacles facing Columbus this fall.

No more patsies: The Crew's first opponent after the break is Houston, the only MLS club with more points than Columbus right now. Things don't get much easier in the remaining six contests - at Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, at New England, at DC and New England. Most of those teams should be considered contenders, and none of them should be taken lightly.

The Champions League challenge: Further complicating things for the Black and Gold is the glut of CONCACAF Champions League contests strewn between MLS matches. Besides facing the best their own league has to offer, Columbus will visit Costa Rica's talented Saprissa (Sept. 16) and the Puerto Rico Islanders (Oct. 20) and will host Cruz Azul (Sept. 23) and Saprissa (Sept. 29). It's going to be an exhausting run.

World Cup qualification: U.S. national team contributors Chad Marshall, Robbie Rogers and Frankie Hejduk could all be called into duty for an Oct. 10 World Cup qualifying match that would keep them out of Columbus' visit to New England that day. Other Crew internationals like Alejandro Moreno, Emmanuel Ekpo and Duncan Oughton could miss minutes this fall if their country comes calling.

On the plus side, Marshall's and Rogers' duty with the U.S. this week (they play El Salvador Saturday in Utah and travel to Trinidad & Tobago next Wednesday) won't keep them out of any Crew games.