Backline: Martin Vasquez's great adventure

"It was almost like a dare," remembers Hugo Salcedo about how Martin Vasquez broke into the Mexican First Division back in 1987.

Salcedo was in Jalisco Stadium watching Universidad de Guadalajara with the club's president and asked him, "Is that central defender the best you have?"

The president, a bit offended, answered yes. Salcedo said he knew a player who could do better.

"He's a young kid from California and if you bring him in, he'll be starting in two weeks," Salcedo said.

The president took the challenge and Salcedo's prediction panned out.

Vasquez, who at age 12 immigrated to the USA from Yahualica, Mexico, with his family, played college ball at Cal State L.A. and then joined the indoor Los Angeles Lazers. Vasquez was with the Western Soccer Alliance's Hollywood Kickers, for which Salcedo, a former U.S. national team player, served as president, when the Mexico opportunity arrived.

Vasquez would play nearly 300 games for Universidad de Guadalajara, Puebla, Veracruz and Atlas. He returned to play in MLS when it launched in 1996 and became the first person to be capped by the national teams of Mexico and the USA, for which he played in 1998 World Cup qualifying.

Fast forward to 2008 and Vasquez, 44, makes history again.

In January, Bayern Munich hired Juergen Klinsmann to take its head-coaching position for the 2008-09 season. Although Bayern is headed toward its seventh Bundesliga title in 10 seasons, Bayern bosses have been unsatisfied with its performance in the Champions League, which Bayern last won in 2001.

Klinsmann's first move was to name Vasquez his top assistant.

So while Vas-quez seemed a
favorite to become the first Mexican-American head coach in MLS history, he instead joins one of the world's most illustrious clubs.

Vasquez and Klinsmann have promised, out of respect to Bayern's current coaching staff, not to give interviews until they take over this summer. But Klinsmann told the club's official Web site upon the hiring that he observed Vasquez at the 2003 adidas ESP camp and "was impressed by his positive leadership style." Klinsmann described Vasquez as a "constant driving force, with great passion and commitment to his players."

Klinsmann, while consultant to the Los Angeles Galaxy, recommended the club hire Vasquez as an assistant coach and in 2004 Vasquez worked under Sigi Schmid and Steve Sampson before spending three years as Chivas USA assistant coach.

Vasquez, in an interview before the Bayern hiring, said he hadn't thought much about a coaching career while he still played.

"I thought I was going to play forever," he said. "I thought I'd play until I was 50. … Late in my career, I started thinking about coaching. Not pros, but youth soccer, because I wanted to give back to the game that gave me so much."

Vasquez started with youth and high school ball. Carlos Juarez, who was a teammate of Vasquez's at Cal State L.A., hired Vasquez as an assistant at Cal Poly Pomona and with the WUSA's San Diego Spirit. Juarez had been impressed with Vasquez when he first spotted him as a teenager playing in Southern California's amateur leagues.

"Here was this 17-year-old kid," Juarez remembers, "playing with very experienced guys in their 20s and 30s, and Martin is running the show and all his teammates respect him."

Vasquez worked under four coaches at Chivas USA, including Thomas Rongen, Hans Westerhof and Bob Bradley. But each time the club hired a new head coach — Preki being the latest — it passed on promoting Vasquez.

The German press has reported that Vasquez will play a hands-on coaching role in the fashion Joachim Loew served Klinsmann during Germany's third-place run at the 2006 World Cup. Loew was credited with providing the tactical expertise and running training sessions.

"Martin's a well-prepared, meticulous coach who's a student of the game," Juarez says. "He's not flashy. He's humble. He's not the kind of coach who's looking to get recognized. But he's the kind of coach whose qualities someone like Juergen Klinsmann appreciates."

And has a lot of confidence in.

(This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.) 

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