It's only February, but the new-look Crew is already taking the pitch for some official business. While MLS play doesn't begin until mid-March, Columbus gets some meaningful matches ahead of time when it faces Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

It's only February, but the new-look Crew is already taking the pitch for some official business. While MLS play doesn't begin until mid-March, Columbus gets some meaningful matches ahead of time when it faces Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

That means Alive's weekly Crew coverage has returned early too. In the coming weeks, we'll introduce the new faces, catch up with the supporters' clubs and consider the outlook for 2011.

For now, let's zero in on some key questions about the Champions League, an international tournament matching the top clubs in North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Q: It's February; how is Columbus already in the quarterfinals?

A: The Champions League operates on a fall-to-spring schedule because so do most of the leagues involved. The summer-centric MLS calendar is uncommon among soccer leagues worldwide. So this is the continuation of the 2010-11 Champions League. Columbus advanced out of the group stage by finishing second in Group B with a 4-2 record last fall.

Q: Why is the Crew facing another MLS team?

A: Four MLS teams qualify for the Champions League each year. Real Salt Lake was the only other MLS team to advance to the quarterfinals. As a second-place finisher in group play, Columbus could have been matched against any of the group winners, but they were randomly pitted against fellow Americans.

Q: What's the format for this round?

A: Now that round-robin group play is completed, Champions League shifts to a two-game series for the quarterfinals. Columbus hosts Salt Lake this Tuesday, Feb. 22, and travels to Salt Lake City next Tuesday, March 1, for the second leg. As in MLS playoff series, the combined score of the two matches will decide who advances.

Q: How likely is the Crew to advance?

A: Columbus has never made it past the quarterfinal stage - this is as far as they got last year - but they've never faced an opponent as beatable as Salt Lake. The Crew and RSL have been pretty evenly matched in recent years.

Mexican clubs tend to be the class of this tournament, but thanks to a scheduling quirk that landed all four remaining Mexican teams on one side of the bracket, the Crew has a realistic chance to advance to the finals. First they must dispatch Real Salt Lake, though.