Cesar Hernandez9 minutes of reading
Long before he became an MLS star with FC Cincinnati and played for the United States Men’s National Team, Brandon Vazquez was just another bordertown kid who regularly straddled daily life and a passion for soccer between two countries.
Raised in Chula Vista, California, Vazquez was discovered by scouts from Club Tijuana, a Liga MX team located a few miles south of the US-Mexico border. American by birth but with a Mexican heritage, the forward occupied both worlds, crossing the border every time he trained and played with the youth academy in Tijuana.
For the teenager, it was an early lesson in endurance and patience. “It was pretty crazy,” Vazquez told ESPN ahead of the USMNT’s Gold Cup opener on Saturday. “I think back on it now, and it’s like, damn, I don’t know if I could do it now.”
When Vazquez was 13 or 14 years old, the future U.S. national team player would wake up at 5.00 to get to training in Tijuana at 7 a.m. and have his Mexico City-born father accompany him on his first trips. When the training was finished and back at the border at 10 a.m., he often waited two to three hours to return to the United States. On bad days, it was a four or five hour wait for a teenager who still had to do his schooling online – and train again from home.
“Very long days,” Vazquez said. “Our life revolved around my football, so my parents definitely sacrificed a lot for me in those years.”
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That sacrifice has since been rewarded through his eventual success and move to MLS. At just 24 years old and with so much potential, the forward has already earned an MLS Cup title, a US Open Cup championship, an appearance in last year’s MLS All-Star Game and a Best XI selection. Quick, physical and possessing excellent hold-up play, it was no surprise to see Vazquez also included in this month’s USMNT squad for the Gold Cup.
That is where he will have an enticing opportunity to increase his stock further. With a lifelong goal of crossing more borders and into European football, Vazquez can use the Gold Cup to show not only his national team what he can do, but also big clubs abroad. Doing so would be a huge feat for the player, especially considering that while Mexico and the United States have given him so much to start his career, at national team level, both looked elsewhere when it came to the 2022 World Cup.
Finding a national team home
Not from here, not from there.
A phrase common in the Mexican-American community that essentially means “not from here or there,” the saying is one that sums up the feeling of not feeling quite Mexican or American. It’s almost a sense of displacement for someone who isn’t sure if they really belong in either culture.
That’s a good summary of Vazquez’s national team prospects last year. Despite his sensational form in 2022 with 18 goals (tied for fourth overall in MLS) and eight assists for Cincinnati, the MLS Best XI striker, qualified for both the USA and Mexico, did not earn a World Cup call-up for either side . Due to his extensive US youth national team experience and praise from senior coach Gregg Berhalter, the USMNT seemed like it would have been the more likely option. But from Mexico, where he began his career, there has been radio silence.
“No one,” the dual citizen said when asked if anyone from the Mexican federation has contacted him. “I haven’t heard anything, so yeah, nothing there.”
An important factor in his absence from The three? More than likely, it was the indifference of former Mexico manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who did not have the best relationship with Vazquez when they worked together at Atlanta United in 2017 and 2018.
“I didn’t really have a good relationship with him,” Vazquez said. “Obviously, he’s an incredible team coach. He came in, we won a championship (in 2018) and he did really well for the team, but as a younger player at the time, I didn’t really want to — I don’t know — I would talk to him on the field, but I would never talk to him off the field.
“I definitely learned a lot from the style of play we played at the time and what he wanted from each position, but on a personal level I don’t think I grew much from him.”
Nothing from Mexico emerged as new coaches and federation staff took charge after the World Cup, but in January of this year, the United States finally stepped in for Vazquez. He made his international debut, scoring for the USMNT in a 2–1 friendly loss to Serbia on January 25. Two more US friendlies have followed and, having accepted a call-up to the Gold Cup, he will soon be international. bound.
When asked if he felt he made the right decision to stick with the U.S., Vazquez was straightforward: “I’m completely focused on myself with the U.S. national team.”
Part of that focus is being part of an exciting generation of talent that has helped the United States become the new giants of Concacaf. The USMNT no longer lives in the shadow of Mexico, but has titles in both editions of the Nations League and the last Gold Cup.
With many European-based stars getting a break for this summer’s tournament, Vazquez will have an invaluable chance to shine for a team that is gaining more international recognition and respect. Notable clubs abroad are watching what’s happening in the United States, and it’s no surprise to see Vazquez’s name as a rumored target for teams overseas.
Patiently waiting for his moment to thrive in the Old World, it wasn’t that long ago when it looked like the odds for his dream transfer weren’t in his favor.
Enduring ‘frustrating’ year in Atlanta
At first, Vazquez thought his route to Europe would run through Atlanta. Signed ahead of the team’s inaugural season in 2017, the then 18-year-old was an up-and-coming forward who had just made his professional debut for Tijuana in a domestic cup game in August 2016. It looks set to be a key frontline contributor with its new roster, he felt optimistic about the move.
“It was [supposed to be] a stepping stone to go to Europe, because of course my goal, my whole career, my whole life, has been to go to Europe,” Vazquez said. But that optimism quickly faded as the spotlight shone on another up-and-coming recruit: Josef Martinez .
“Josef signed with Atlanta and yeah, I never really saw the field after that,” said Vazquez, who didn’t make a single start under Martino. “It was just a long, hard couple of years for me. Very frustrating.”
As Martinez took the league by storm, scoring an eye-popping 77 goals in Vazquez’s three years with Atlanta, the Chula Vista native was left to scrap playing time. A gradual increase in minutes came in 2019 when Martino left and was replaced by Frank de Boer. That year, Vazquez then got more opportunities to showcase his talents, eventually scoring four times en route to a US Open Cup crown.
Things were starting to look up, but his true impact in American soccer would come through a change of club and scenery.
A revival in Cincinnati
So what was it that made Vazquez one of the breakout MLS players of 2022? Was it another team? A tactical change? A new coaching influence?
“A little bit of everything,” Vazquez said of his trade to Cincinnati in late 2019. “I mean, obviously I haven’t changed much as a player, I was always this player, but I think it was just the confidence from the coaching staff and it definitely gave me the confidence that I needed to be able to do what I did last year.”
Needing time to find his footing — as many did on and off the field due to the effects of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 — Vazquez was nothing short of brilliant last year. Bolstered by the hiring of manager Pat Noonan and assistant Dominic Kinnear ahead of the 2022 season, Vazquez finally got the backing of a staff that entrusted the player with a starting role.
The forward also found a connection with playmaker Luciano Acosta and fellow player Brenner, forming an outstanding trio that led the Orange-and-Blue to 64 goals in 34 games during the regular season. After finishing dead last in each of its first three seasons in the league, Cincinnati finished 2022 in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time.
The goals haven’t arrived in the same numbers in 2023 – just four in 17 games – but that shouldn’t put off the starter, who has done more support work for the side who sit top of the Supporters’ Shield standings. When you watch Vazquez this season, there is more to his distribution, ball-carrying, hold-up situations and defensive interventions.
“I think there’s been a lot of talk about my goals this season,” Vazquez said. “Of course it’s frustrating for me too, some things just haven’t gone my way, [but] the work I’ve put in has helped us be in first place all year. I think it is not just an accident that we are in first place. I think we all pull our strings together to be where we are today.”
His fortunes in front of goal are also improving. Crucially ahead of the Gold Cup, all four of Vazquez’s goals this season have come in his last eight games in all competitions. “I have been working on the same routine as I had last year, nothing has changed,” he said. “My hunger hasn’t changed, my routine hasn’t changed. I’m the same player, I’m the same person.”
A future abroad
If the striker does eventually move to Europe, it likely won’t be in the summer transfer window. Similar to his willingness to do more in a supporting role on the field, the same could be said for his intentions off the field.
“I’ve had those conversations with Cincinnati,” Vazquez said. “With Brenner leaving this summer (for Serie A’s Udinese), it’s pretty difficult to find a replacement, and just to find a replacement for both of us if I were to leave, and Cincinnati doesn’t want me to go yet.
“We are striving to win a championship, so hopefully in the winter there can be something that can be resolved.”
Waiting for the right transfer also meant turning down an opportunity last winter to play with Liga MX’s Chivas, a powerhouse in North American soccer that he supported as a child. “I had one [Chivas] jersey in my closet my whole childhood,” Vazquez said. “My mom’s side of the family is from Guadalajara, everyone was a Chivas fan.”
Chivas, who Vazquez and Cincinnati will face on July 27 in the Leagues Cup, would not give him a more likely route to Europe. “I think at the end of the day it was a decision that I thought was best for me and my career,” he said. “Of course [I’m] very pleasant here in cincinnati. I love the coaching staff, I love the training ground, my teammates, the fans. Everything is set up to help me succeed.
“I thought if I stay in Cincinnati, it will give me the fastest route and best route to Europe.”
Patiently anticipating the next big leap across borders and into the elite world of international football, and with the Gold Cup around the corner as a possible catalyst, Vazquez could soon have his wish granted.