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Raising the curtain on the 2012 Major League Soccer season

For many of you, the offseason has been too long. For others - myself included, I must admit - the winter has flown by.

For many of you, the offseason has been too long. For others - myself included, I must admit - the winter has flown by.

Admittedly, I've been plenty busy over the last few weeks covering college basketball. But there's been so much going on with the Union this offseason that it feels like I never stopped writing about soccer.

The Union have already been among the busiest teams in MLS in 2012, even though their preseason training has taken place largely out of public view.

Sébastien Le Toux, Faryd Mondgragón, Justin Mapp and Velkjo Paunoviç are gone. Josué Martinez, Gabriel Gomez and Porfirio Lopez have arrived, as have five college draft picks and two homegrown players.

For now, only Peter Nowak knows - if anyone does - what the Union's starting lineup will be when they take the field next Monday night in Portland.

This much is for sure: your wait to see the Union again is almost over.

Between now and then, though, there's a lot of soccer to take in. The league season kicks off Saturday, and NBC Sports Network makes its much-anticipated MLS debut on Sunday. There's also an unofficial curtain-raiser tonight in the form of a CONCACAF Champions League doubleheader.

That's why, by the time you read this, I'll be somewhere in the sky flying westward to Seattle. I'm headed to the Pacific Northwest for a week to cover a blockbuster trio of games spanning all of the region's soccer hotbeds.

Tonight, I'll be at CenturyLink Field to watch the Sounders face reigning Mexican champions Santos Laguna. It's the first leg of the most intriguing of the four CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series.

Seattle's newest big name, Eddie Johnson, is expected to play tonight, and may be in the starting lineup. He'll be facing off against another former U.S. national team prospect, Herculez Gomez. You have to think that Jurgen Klinsmann will have an eye on the action when kickoff arrives at 10 p.m. Eastern.

It will also be a chance to catch up with Drexel alum and Abington native Jeff Parke, as he begins his third season in the Emerald City.

Seattle-Santos will air on Fox Soccer Channel, and will be preceded by another CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. Toronto FC hosts the Los Angeles Galaxy at a sold-out Rogers Centre at 8 p.m. Eastern. Yes, you read that right - all 45,000 of the available seats at the Toronto Blue Jays' home will be filled.

Saturday evening, I'll be north of the border in Vancouver, as the Whitecaps renew their longstanding rivalry with the Montréal Impact at B.C. Place. It's the first official game of the MLS season, and the atmosphere should be electric.

It also just so happens to be Sébastien Le Toux's first game since departing Philadelphia. The contest will feature four former Union stalwarts: Le Toux, Brad Knighton and Jordan Harvey for the Whitecaps, and Justin Mapp for the Impact.

You can be sure that I'll be talking to as many of them as I can get a hold of. I know you all want to find out how they've adjusted to their new clubs - and whether they have any messages to send back to PPL Park.

Although the game won't air on American television, you can watch it on MLS Live, the league's online streaming package. MLS Live will offer a free preview on Saturday. If you decide to buy the service, it costs $60 for the season. It's not a bad deal if you ask me.

Finally, after a long train ride south through the Cascade mountains, I'll get to Portland for the Union's season opener against the Timbers. That game kicks off Monday night at 9:30 p.m. Eastern, and will be broadcast on ESPN2.

I'll be covering the game for the Inquirer and Daily News, so be sure to pick up the papers Tuesday morning to read my account of the action.

I'm supposed to arrive in the Rose City literally five minutes before the NCAA Tournament selection show starts on Sunday. That has me a bit nervous about missing one of the most dramatic half-hours in sports, but I'm sure I'll find some way to follow along. On the plus side, I'll be on site to cover the Union's Sunday evening training session at JELD-Wen Field.

If you're going to Portland too, I hope you'll e-mail me and let me know. I'd like to write a story about the Union fans who make the trip.

Now, here's a little something to whet your appetite for the coming season.

You've all read my blog for long enough by now to know that I'm a big fan of creative playmakers in soccer. Some people like high-scoring strikers, and others like hard-charging tacklers. A few people even like the position for which this blog is named.

But the kind of player who has always fired my imagination is the creator. The type of player who sends a perfect through ball to an onrushing forward, or out-thinks the defender on his back with a fancy dribble.

Some people invent with computer chips or chemical compounds; these people invent with a soccer ball.

You know how often I've written about Roger Torres. My favorite players over the years have included Zinedine Zidane, Marco Etcheverry, Dennis Berkgamp and Andres Iniesta.

(It might not be coincidental that none of those players are English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, and that only one ever played in the Premier League.)

In honor of the arrival of the 2012 MLS season, I've picked one player from each of the 19 teams in the league who I think is the most creative. Some of them will be familiar, and some might surprise you.

This wasn't easy, by the way. Some teams have multiple players worth highlighting, and others barely have any.

Still, I was able to put together a pretty good group. At the top of this post, you'll see a photo gallery of my selections.

Whether you support the Union or another club, here's hoping you find a player whose creativity inspires you this season.

Now it's time to get the ball rolling.