After going 0-2-5 to begin the season - the worst start by a defending champion in MLS history - who would have believed the Columbus Crew would be back at the head of the pack at this point?

After going 0-2-5 to begin the season - the worst start by a defending champion in MLS history - who would have believed the Columbus Crew would be back at the head of the pack at this point?

The Crew believed, of course.

"I know everybody was really disappointed about the results, but the way we played was fine with me," Coach Robert Warzycha said. "I thought at some point it was going to turn around."

The players and coaches have insisted all year that their early-season slump was more about bad luck than bad soccer, and the club's tenacious climb to the top of the league standings, punctuated by a dramatic 2-1 victory Sunday over West-leading Houston, bears them out.

"It never once didn't cross our minds that we were going to be at the top," said defender and captain Frankie Hejduk, who notched his first goal of the season Sunday to open the scoring in the 34th minute.

Houston's Cam Weaver delivered an equalizer in the 80th minute, and just when it looked like the teams were headed for their second 1-1 draw of the season, Geoff Cameron pulled down Alejandro Moreno in the box in the final minute of regulation, earning the Crew a controversial penalty kick. Eddie Gaven's stoppage time conversion lifted Columbus to the win and lit the Nordecke afire with chants of "We are top o' the league!"

Getting to the top was one thing; staying there will be an increasingly formidable challenge. The Crew's remaining schedule is brutal thanks to tough MLS competition and a smattering of international matchups in the CONCACAF Champions League. Sunday's showdown began a stretch of seven matches in 21 days.

Hejduk understands the task facing his team. During an interview Tuesday, he seemed fixated on the word "battle."

"Every team that we go against is in for a battle," he said, "and it's going to be no different in Chicago."

Ah, Chicago, home of the archrival Fire. The Crew heads there Sunday for a match that could go a long way toward determining home-field advantage in the playoffs.

As if the usual Columbus-Chicago tension wasn't enough, Brian McBride, the Crew's answer to Benedict Arnold, has returned from shoulder surgery weeks earlier than expected.

Hejduk said Columbus is confident in its ability to get a result on the road this weekend. But as Warzycha attested Tuesday, come playoff time the Crew would much rather be bolstered by a boisterous home crowd, as they were in last season's Eastern Conference final, than face Chicago at the Fire's Bridgeview Stadium. A win Sunday would go a long way toward securing that advantage.

"They're going to be throwing everything at us," Hejduk said, "and we're going to be throwing everything at them."