This is normally the time on the calendar when thoughts turn to the best way to celebrate the opening weekend of the MLS season. For fans lucky enough to hold tickets to an opening week home match as well as those who watch the league from the comfort of home, the long-awaited return of games is an opportunity to get excited about the teams and storylines that will carry their interest from March until November.
Unlike most years, however, the prospect of a strike could delay the start of the season. But teams are continuing to prepare in the hopes that Opening Kick happens on March 6. Following their lead, here's a recap of the most recent week in the MLS offseason.
On the field
The Galaxy are in Ireland, exhibition tournaments are taking place in Oregon, Arizona and North Carolina, and MLS teams are racking up minutes of game action in a race to be ready for a season set to start in two weeks. The results are less important than how teams and individuals played, which can make parsing the events of the past week a little difficult for a casual fan.
There were a few notable moments, though. Kaka scored in Orlando's 1-1 draw with NYCFC, increasing the expectations surrounding the Brazilian star's first year in America for a new franchise that desperately needs him to live up to the hype.
Graham Zusi made his preseason debut for Sporting Kansas City, returning from a foot injury to score in a 3-2 win over Seattle at the Desert Diamond Cup in Arizona. Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes plans to slowly increase Zusi's minutes (he played 30 minutes against Seattle) in a bid to have him ready for the season opener. With the 2013 champs now in the Western Conference, Zusi will need to be at his best if the club is to have a chance at a top seed this season.
While Zusi returned from injury, a blow to the Portland Timbers depth served as a reminder that while preseason matches don't count for much, it doesn't means players can't get hurt going through their paces. The Timbers' Ben Zemanski suffered a torn ACL in a 1-0 loss to Vancouver on Sunday, and with starter Will Johnson still working his way back from a broken leg, the injury will hurt the Timbers' ability to cover at the defensive midfield position.
Teams are still adding players
Soccer teams are never really finished products, not even two weeks before the start of the regular season. Even forgetting the midseason arms race that takes place every summer, MLS clubs are not shy about adding new pieces to their rosters with barely enough time for the newcomers to learn their teammates' names before the games get underway.
Last week, a couple of squads brought in talent to bolster their attacks.
The Colorado Rapids cracked open owner Stan Kroenke's checkbook to sign their second designated player, Argentine midfielder Juan Ramirez. The 21-year-old Ramirez moves north from Argentinos Juniors with an eye toward boosting the Rapids' offense.
After a very difficult 2014, Colorado has a host of new faces for Pablo Mastroeni to juggle. The typically thrifty Rapids will hope that Ramirez is not only worth the DP designation, but that he contributes enough to keep him from becoming another in a long line of low-level DPs who came and went without denting the collective MLS memory.
FC Dallas scored their own South American when they completed the signing of Colombian winger Michael Barrios from Uniautonoma on Friday. Head coach Oscar Pareja prefers speedy attackers who can aid in the transition game, something Barrios seems perfectly suited to do.
Tagged as a winger, the Colombian is more likely to slot in at forward. With Blas Perez entrenched as the lead striker, Barrios should push for minutes alongside Tesho Akindele and Ryan Hollingshead.
Champions League eve
The MLS regular season might not start for another two weeks (we hope), but two MLS teams will get their competitive seasons underway this coming week with the resumption of the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League.
Montreal and D.C. United were the only MLS teams to reach the quarterfinals of the tournament, and are therefore the only hopes for the league to make any noise in a competition that has confounded American and Canadian clubs year after year.
Montreal travels to Mexico to face Pachuca on Tuesday, while D.C. United will be in Costa Rica to battle Alajuelense on Thursday. A strong performance in the first leg is crucial to any chance either MLS team has of winning this round and advancing to the semifinals.
So all eyes will turn to the two teams who gained entry to tournament through their respective countries' cup competitions to fly the flag of MLS in 2015. Expectations are low, because this is typically where MLS teams trip up and because neither of these teams is viewed as the best the league has to offer.
That's a little harsh on D.C. United, who did finish first in the East last year, but it's probably too kind to Montreal. The Impact deserve credit for getting this far, but it's slightly embarrassing that the worst MLS team of last season is representing MLS at the continental level.
Whatever results Montreal and United earn this week, at least it's competitive soccer. Something to hold us over until the season starts, if it starts on time.