Usually at this point in the winter, there's a solid focus on hot stove activities in baseball, but in the dark corners of the American sports landscape professional soccer is also gearing up for its season which virtually begins at the same time as baseball's.
In Columbus, the Crew will open the 15th season of Major League Soccer with eyes on erasing an embarrassing playoff collapse to eventual MLS Cup winner Real Salt Lake in November.
The Crew, who posted the best regular season record in MLS last season, have virtually the same components back. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the 2008 league MVP, was re-signed in the offseason despite showing that his skills might be slipping a bit at the age of 36.
Crew management wants to limit his minutes so he can remain effective, but he's not the only player who is in that boat. In the Crew defense, Gino Padula and captain Frankie Hedjuk are 33 and 35 respectively. Since the Crew spent the offseason drafting heavily on offense and signing quality Colombian forward Sergio Herrera, it remains to be seen if the aging back line will hold up through a vigorous season.
And make no mistake about it, it will be a vigorous season.
On March 9, the season opens in earnest as the Crew host Mexican power Toluca in a first round of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal which is the club championship for North and Central America. The return leg will take place on March 17 in Toluca. Ten days later the Crew will open the MLS season with a home match against bitter rival Toronto FC.
If the Crew advance in the Champions League, a log jam of games and travel headaches will pile up quickly since the Crew are the last MLS team left in the competition. Making matters more difficult, MLS will break for the World Cup in June, so the schedule will be even more compacted than usual.
MLS will also play a balanced schedule this season in which every team plays a home and away game against every other team.
In addition, two new stadiums will come online this season. Red Bull Arena - a European-style 25,000 seat stadium - will open in March in Harrison, New Jersey. Philadelphia Union - who are making their debut this season - will play play at the 18,500-seat Union Field at Chester along the banks of the Delaware River starting in June. The addition of these two stadiums brings the total of soccer specific stadiums in the league to nine.
Unfortunately for Crew supporters, who have been known to travel in large numbers to away games, both scheduled trips to the new venues come in the form of midweek affairs making it unlikely that a large vocal support group will attend.
At home, the Crew have announced that work on the stadium's rut-filled parking lot - which is essentially dirt and a bit of grass - will commence sometime this season. It remains to be seen if the work will be done by the end of the season, however.
Of course, everything MLS has in front of it relies on the players union and owners banging out a new collective bargaining argreement in the coming weeks. With both sides understanding that the league can't afford any sort of work stoppage, there's a strong possibility something will get done before the season starts.
On the minor league front, the Cleveland City Stars quietly folded a few months ago during the turmoil resulting from the collapse of the United Soccer League First Division. The loss is not a big one however as the club did not seem intent on seriously developing a competitive team in what is essentially the second level of pro soccer in the U.S. and Canada.
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds, on the other hand, survived the mess and will play in the United Soccer League Second Division for the third consecutive season beginning in April.