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What you need to know

FC Cincinnati sign rising Ecuador international midfielder Angulo

FC Cincinnati have signed Ecuador international midfielder Marco Angulo from Independiente del Valle, sources tell MLSsoccer.com. Cincy will pay a $3 million transfer fee, sources add. Angulo will be added to their roster via the league's U22 Initiative. Angulo, 20, just missed out on Ecuador's 2022 World Cup squad but made his senior international debut last week, featuring in a 0-0 draw with Iraq. The box-to-box midfielder won the 2022 Copa Sudamericana (a South American continental tournament below the Copa Libertadores) with Independiente, making seven appearances throughout the tournament.

Colorado Rapids recall Bassett from Fortuna Sittard loan

The Colorado Rapids have recalled homegrown midfielder Cole Bassett from his loan at Eredivise side Fortuna Sittard. The move brings the 21-year-old US international back to MLS ahead of the 2023 campaign, roughly 10 months after he originally went to Holland to join Feyenoord on loan. Bassett was among Colorado’s best players for several seasons, recording 13 goals and 11 assists across 72 matches for his hometown club since debuting in 2018. He’ll now return to playing under manager Robin Fraser, who often used him in a box-arriving central midfield role.

D.C. United reach deal with free agent Santos

D.C. United and free agent left back Pedro Santos have agreed on a contract ahead of the 2023 MLS season, sources tell MLSsoccer.com. Santos is among the top defenders on the free agent market and won MLS Cup 2020 with the Columbus Crew. His arrival would continue the Black-and-Red's roster rebuild under head coach Wayne Rooney, who took over in mid-July. Santos, 34, spent the last five and a half years with the Crew, making 155 appearances after playing for Braga in his native Portugal. He was originally signed by Columbus as a Designated Player winger and was productive – including a career-best 2019 season with 11 goals and six assists – but transitioned to attacking fullback in recent years to good effect.

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One team is setting itself up to compete with the league's best in 2023

I went back and watched the highlights of MLS Cup a couple of times this weekend. Just typical offseason boredom stuff. The best game in MLS history got me thinking though: Who the hell is going to compete with LAFC and Philadelphia next year?

There is a ton of offseason left, but we’re officially in it now. Free agents are out there ready to be signed and teams are already making moves to try and catch up to LAFC and the Union. Because right now, even if we projected out near worst-case scenarios for those two teams, it’s hard to see them being anything but preseason favorites.

LAFC might be losing some of the depth guys like… uh… Gareth Bale, who helped them win MLS Cup. As a depth piece. Sheesh……… Oh, and they could be losing a starter or two like José Cifuentes if teams from abroad come calling with appropriate transfer fees.

The Union could potentially lose starting fullbacks Olivier Mbaizo and Kai Wagner. However, they already have Mbaizo’s replacement lined up in Nathan Harriel and the front office hasn’t exactly missed on upgrading areas of need as of late. The larger point though is that, barring a relative landslide of unforeseen moves, both teams will largely maintain the core and tactical principles that put them in lockstep for a league double.

So who’s going to keep up? The answer could absolutely end up being nobody. I know we’ve spent entire offseasons hyping up teams before to poor results (Hello, 2021 Columbus!), but in our defense, it’s unclear if the 2020 season actually existed. This feels different. Especially since we’re talking about two of the league’s most consistent teams since 2018. This wasn’t just a flash in the pan. The only plausible scenario for derailment here feels like it involves extreme CCL fatigue.

However, regardless of CCL’s potential to level the playing field, it feels like a few teams aren’t that far away from catching up. Some are the usual suspects who you just assume will be good to great, like NYCFC. But there are less typical candidates to compete with the league’s best next year. In particular, FC Cincinnati seem to be at the top of the list.

In addition to a couple of MLS Cup revisits, Cincy’s move for U22 box-to-box midfielder Marco Angulo played a part in thinking about 2023’s challengers to the throne. It will be year two under head coach Pat Noonan and general manager Chris Albright. Clearly, they got plenty right in year one. And we’ve seen plenty of MLS teams take massive strides forward in year two under new leadership. Would you be surprised at all to see them get most everything right and maybe a little more this offseason?

Now, the caveat to all of Cincy’s potential this offseason is that undeniable transfer offers for Brenner and Brandon Vazquez could instantly leave them with a ton to replace up top. But the good news is they’re already working effectively to address other needs. Angulo is a great start. A box-to-box midfielder with serious potential to pair nicely with Obinna Nwobodo in midfield feels like a perfect step one.

FC Cincinnati also gave themselves flexibility elsewhere with their end-of-year roster decisions. They released Ronald Matarrita and Geoff Cameron, along with six other players. That’s now seven spots to fill with room to work. Room to very likely try to improve at center back and right wingback now that they seem to have already attempted to address a need to upgrade in midfield.

I initially started out here looking to discuss the multitude of teams ready to take a leap forward and join the league’s elite in 2023. But it became clear that the Garys are the team with the most direct path to the top. The rest of the league’s second tier may have to work a little harder and get a little luckier to join them at the top. Keep a close, close eye on Cincy the rest of the winter.

Other things

Former New York Red Bull Adams named USA captain for World Cup: Tyler Adams will captain the US men’s national team into the 2022 FIFA World Cup, head coach Gregg Berhalter announced on the eve of Monday’s Group B opener vs. Wales (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo). The Leeds United midfielder and New York Red Bulls homegrown product will be the USMNT’s youngest captain since Walter Bahr at the 1950 World Cup. He’s already worn the armband nine times during 32 career international appearances.

LAFC's Méndez helps lead Ecuador over Qatar in World Cup opener: The FIFA World Cup kicked off Sunday with Ecuador defeating Qatar, 2-0, powered by an Enner Valencia brace. LAFC midfielder Sebastián Méndez was in La Tri’s starting XI, along with former Minnesota United forward Romario Ibarra, now with Pachuca in Liga MX. Mendez played the full 90 minutes and was a solid contributor.

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Good luck out there. Here’s a picture of Alan Velasco holding the reins of a horse while wearing a Mavericks jersey. I don’t know what it means, but you might.