Brandon Vazquez & the Waiting Game

The 24-year-old FC Cincinnati striker, who won the Open Cup in 2019 with Atlanta United and recently reported for his first senior USMNT camp, knows the importance of being ready.
By: Jonah Fontela

He knows all about making the most of chances when they come.

Brandon Vazquez’s long wait for his first call-up to the U.S men’s senior national team, at the age of 24 for this year’s January camp in California, wasn’t the first time he’s found himself, hungry and poised, on the edges of consideration.

“Last year I did everything possible in my control to give myself the best opportunity to get into the World Cup roster [for Qatar],” said the powerful forward who caught fire with FC Cincinnati last season, helping them to the MLS playoffs and pushing himself into contention for the national team. “Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way."

“But you shake it off,” added Vazquez. “You start again.”

Three years before his massive 18-goal All-Star season, back in 2019, he was a crucial piece of Atlanta United’s Open Cup-winning campaign. And that was the culmination of a waiting game that started back when he was 16.

Daily Border Crossings

“Some days I’d wait in line for five minutes and other days it was three hours,” Vazquez chuckled then, remembering his daily treks from California to Mexico and back to train with his first club side, Tijuana. “It was tough. It was tedious sometimes, but I learned a lot about myself.”

Those lessons were about commitment and passion, the burning desire Vazquez had to drag himself out of bed at 5 am every day and hoof it over the line. Born in Chula Vista, California, near San Diego, the striker, who holds dual Mexican/American citizenship, had to make sure he gave himself plenty of buffer time to get to his 7 am training sessions with the Xolos.

Vazquez in his Open Cup-winning 2019 with Atlanta United

“My parents drove me to the border every morning and dropped me off,” said the striker who’s played in the American youth set-up, lining up alongside current senior stars like Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams for the U-17s and U-20s.  “Then I’d walk across. Once I was in Mexico, I took an Uber to practice.”

The longest waits were on the way back. Vazquez laughs when describing the back-ups and long lines and how, on some days, the sun would set and he’d still be in that limbo on his way home.

Vazquez’s debut in Mexico’s Liga MX came in August of 2016 when he was still just 17. Four months later, one-time Barcelona boss (and recent Mexico coach) Tata Martino brought him to a new MLS club just getting on its feet in Atlanta, Georgia. There, he’d have to play the waiting game again, in line, as he was, behind 2018 MLS MVP and club talisman Josef Martinez.

Still, Vazquez found a way to contribute. He scored one minute into his MLS debut and made a huge impact in United’s 2019 U.S. Open Cup triumph, scoring four goals in three games (six in total after making his tournament debut in 2017).

Forged in Open Cup Fires

“Anybody can see that he has what you need to be a serious striker,” said former Dutch international Frank De Boer, Atlanta’s coach in that Cup-winning year. “He’s strong, he can hold the ball, he can be a rest point when we kick the ball long. And his work rate is fantastic.”

Vazquez, who’s 6-2 and built like a truck, is a defender’s cold-sweat nightmare. And he was happy to do the dirty work in the early stages of that year’s Open Cup when Martinez cooled his heels through the, let’s just say, unpredictability of the early rounds.
Vazquez combines power and panache

He took his chances when they came, no matter how long he had to wait or how weird the conditions.

Vazquez’s first game, in the Round of 32 against the second-division Battery in Charleston, was a waterlogged disaster. “There were holes everywhere and the ref said it wasn’t safe to play,” remembered Vazquez. “So we bussed back home that night.”

It was a six-hour drive and the team got back into Atlanta around 3 a.m. The game was replayed the next day, behind closed doors. None of it rattled Vazquez – not the wait, the long drive, the change of venue or the peak Open Cup-ness of the whole scene.

Early Signs of a High Ceiling

He came off the bench, kept his cool, and scored two late goals in a come-from-behind win to book Atlanta a place in the Round of 16 against the Columbus Crew. Another game full of challenges, and all the water you could handle, it was halted for over an hour after halftime due to massive downpours.

“I never saw rain like that in my life,” said Vazquez, who scored two more in a 3-2 win over the Crew. “You have to adapt and once you get on the pitch you have to be focused and have the mentality to win. You have to push through it.”

Club superstar Martinez returned in the latter rounds of that Cup – for wins over Cinderella side Saint Louis FC and Orlando City, and at home against Minnesota United in front of a record crowd for an Open Cup Final.

Vazquez, still barely out of his teens, then returned to his role of back-up, poised at the margins and waiting for a transformative moment. His play, as a bonafide MLS star under former USMNT striker Pat Noonan in Cincinnati in 2022, was that moment.

And moments, as they do, beget more, and bigger, moments.

“This is a fresh start,” said the in-camp Vazquez, with an opportunity to make the USA’s No9 position his own. “There’s a lot of energy and excitement to be here. All I’m focused on is doing my best for the team and helping them win. I want to score as many goals as possible."

“If I step onto the field and do my job there,” he said, “the rest will come.” 

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.