Brandon Vazquez could be the USMNT’s World Cup forward – or Mexico’s
BLAINE, Minnesota — Brandon Vazquez leaned forward in a creaky plastic chair amid a bevy of All-Star activity when the kingmaker appeared over his broad left shoulder.
Vazquez had shared the story of a fledgling career that once felt stuck “in a fridge” but now felt unleashed. He was recounting his trip from San Diego to Tijuana and Atlanta to Cincinnati, where he was spotted by assistant US national team coach Anthony Hudson on August 6. He was recounting his conversation with Hudson when he felt a hand on his back.
“What’s up, big man?!” exclaimed USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter.
After a warm but hasty exchange, as Berhalter was whisked away for one of the many interviews that day, he turned back to Vazquez and smiled.
“I’m sure I’ll be answering a lot of questions about you today,” Berhalter said.
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He was right, of course, because the World Cup is three months away and Vazquez, 23, is America’s hottest forward in men’s soccer. He has scored seven goals in his last seven games for FC Cincinnati. He has 15 from open play this season, the most in MLS.
Its blast “impressed” Berhalter, who said in May Vazquez was “close” to receiving a USMNT draft. Since then, it has only accelerated, exacerbating a unique dilemma. Berhalter only needs a short training camp until November to integrate a new striker. He has others he trusts, others who know his system and who have helped USA qualify for the World Cup, like Ricardo Pepi; but Pepi hasn’t scored since last fall, while Vazquez has scored five in his last four games.
After a hectic Monday traveling to the MLS All-Star celebrations, Berhalter said in one of his many interviews that Vazquez “may not be coming [a pre-World Cup] Opportunity due to what other players who have already been in the program are doing… But he can.
For his part, Vazquez is excited about “the opportunity to sneak into that squad” for the World Cup, the pinnacle he’s always dreamed of.
But he doesn’t specify anything the roster yet.
Because he knows if Berhalter doesn’t call, Mexico might.
The Making of Brandon Vazquez
Brandon Vazquez’s journey to the top of the MLS began at 5am in Chula Vista, California
He was 13 when he started putting them. He woke up in the dark, wolfed down a protein bar or oatmeal, and was on his way around 5:30 am. His father drove him to and often across the US-Mexico border. Occasionally, Brandon would walk over and then take a taxi to Club Tijuana, his Mexico youth team, in time for the 7am practice session.
He made the journey day after day for one simple reason. He loved fútboland wanted to explore where it might take him.
His parents, who had immigrated to Southern California from Guadalajara in the years before Brandon was born, had introduced the sport into his life as soon as possible. When he was two or three years old, they decked him out in tiny Copa boots and a kid-sized Italy kit. They took him to the local YMCA, where he “dipped” kids so frequently that the organizers eventually moved him up three age brackets. In his backyard, he and his two brothers – one younger, one older – played meanwhile Metegola rotating 1v1v1 game, for hours.
As high school approached, he jumped from three workouts a week at a SoCal juvenile club to six at Tijuana, the Liga MX club commonly known as Xolos. His father took him to the academy, stayed in Mexico while he trained, and then took him back home. After a few hours of online school, Brandon took a break for a private training session. After more school, dinner would come and soon after that it would be time for bed.
“And then repeat,” Vazquez says now. “I did that every day for five, six years.”
Over the years, car rides with Dad turned into carpooling with Greg Garza and Paul Arriola, two teammates from Tijuana, USA. When he moved from academy to reserves, short trips across the border turned into more than 24-hour bus rides across Mexico for games – or even flights for youth national team camps. He scored twice for USA alongside Tyler Adams and Christian Pulisic at the 2015 U17 World Cup. He soon made his debut for Tijuana’s first team at the age of 17.
Looking back, he admits it was all a bit “crazy.” But if the goal was football, he says: “I would have done anything.”
And while it sounds like a grind, he says at the time, “It was just fun.”
Until he moved to Atlanta.
“In a fridge while my career froze”
At 18, Vazquez joined Atlanta United. In 2017, he scored on his debut and made friends at a booming club. In 2018 he won a championship and met the woman he will soon marry. He never felt lonely. He enjoyed the team success.
But sometimes he wondered: Was leaving Tijuana a mistake?
For the first time in his life he trained and trained and trained and then sat on a bench on the weekends. He started with Atlanta in seven MLS games in three seasons. He learned from Josef Martinez, the Venezuelan record striker, but also felt stuck behind him. He grew impatient. He wanted to play. And as he looked around MLS and even Europe, he saw former teammates doing just that.
He saw Pulisic at Dortmund and Adams at the New York Red Bulls and others at Tijuana.
“I compared myself to players too much,” he admits. “It was hard not to compare myself to the progress they were making. And I felt like I was in a fridge while my career was frozen.”
In late 2019, he was planning a move to Cincinnati in a quest for minutes. Instead, he sank even lower, from the bench of a winning team to the bench of a bottom feeder. Starting just 21 games in his first five MLS seasons, he worried. He doubted the transfers. He worked with a sports psychologist, but still, he admits, his motivation sometimes wavered.
“I felt that, no matter how well I trained,” he explains, “I wouldn’t play.”
And football, the sport he had enjoyed so much, began to feel like work. Hard work.
But he endured, and in 2022 the opportunity finally came. A shot on target late last season brought Vazquez regular minutes of play earlier this season. Gates began to flow almost immediately. A hot spell turned into a breakout season. Both the eye test and analyzes have shown that it is sustainable. Vazquez leads the MLS in expected goals without a penalty, a measure of shot quality and quantity. Berhalter and others have raved about his “high level” movement.
All of which is why he was here in Minneapolis to pose for photos with USMNT regulars Walker Zimmerman and Jesús Ferreira and quell his inner fanboy as he met a couple of childhood idols, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Carlos Vela, met.
And that’s why he and Berhalter are now faced with difficult decisions.
“Leave both doors open”
Vazquez spoke to Berhalter in the spring and Hudson earlier this month. He said he hasn’t been in contact with Gerardo “Tata” Martino, his former Atlanta coach who now manages the Mexico national team. While Berhalter remains open, Martinos seems determined. Injury streak aside, he knows which strikers he will bring to Qatar.
However, Martino is reportedly leaving his post after the World Cup. And Vazquez’s decision isn’t urgent – unless one of the coaches calls and tells him it has to be.
Until then, he says, “I’m leaving both doors open.”
Both countries have immense places in their hearts. He played for both youth national teams and although he has never lived outside the United States, he has never lost touch with his Mexican identity. “That’s where my blood comes from,” he says. He remembers potluck style festivals his parents would throw for it El Tri World Cup games. He remembers tacos, tamales and Mexican sweets.
He’s spent most of his youth national team career and now his professional club career with US sides, but his time at Tijuana, he says, “made me really appreciate the motherland.”
The decision, he says, will be made in consultation with his family and agents — one of whom is former USMNT defense attorney Cory Gibbs. The key factor, Vazquez says, will be “what’s best for my career.”
He seems to understand that the 2022 World Cup could be a long road; that core groups of players have already been established and may be difficult to crack. As Berhalter told MLS Extratime, “Like others [players]your contribution to the US men’s national team will not only be decided at the 2022 World Cup, there will also be other opportunities.” There will still be big dreams – of Europe, of the Champions League, of a 2026 World Cup in your own country.
But Vazquez certainly isn’t giving up hope for 2022. He Has raised a related issue with his fiancee. They are slated to marry on December 12, a date unfavorably placed between the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the World Cup.
So has he started considering contingencies?
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking,” he says with a grin. “I have to think about all that stuff now.”