Brandon Vazquez of the Pulisic-era U.S. U-17s hits scoring stride with FC Cincinnati

The 2015 U.S. U-17 team did not do well at the World Cup that year, but players who came from that team have been at the heart of a generation that's succeeding at the highest club levels — and have been part of 2022 World Cup-bound U.S. team. Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic  and Luca de la Torre were on that U-17 World Cup team. Club America’s Alejandro Zendejas was on that team but has earned recent caps for Mexico. Haji Wright is on an eye-opening run in the Turkish league. Reggie Cannon and Weston McKennie were part of that U-17 team but didn't make the final roster.

Among that class of players, Brandon Vazquez was the team’s top forward. He overtook the starting job from Wright at the U-17 World Cup and scored twice in the group stage.

But the start to Vazquez's professional career was difficult. He played behind Josef Martinez in Atlanta before moving to Cincinnati in 2020. Until this year, Cincinnati was dysfunctional — finishing with the league’s worst record its first three seasons from 2019 to 2021. It was a tough place for Vazquez or any player to develop.

The 2022 season, however, has seen Cincinnati make significant changes with a new general manager in Chris Albright and a new head coach in Pat Noonan. After an adjustment period at the start of the season, the team has improved with 16 points from 11 games and on a three-game win streak.

Vazquez, 23, has been a huge part of that. With six goals, Vazquez is one goal shy of the MLS scoring lead. But more than just the quantity of goals, his strikes have come at important moments. Last week, he scored late in stoppage time to deliver a 1-0 away win over Minnesota. In March, his pair of goals lifted Cincinnati to a 3-1 win over Inter Miami. The week before that, he netted twice in a 2-1 away win over Orlando.

“I'm feeling great,” Vazquez told Soccer America. “The team has been playing really well. We have a really strong team and a lot of positivity in what our coach wants to instill in us and the way we want to play. We've created a lot of chances and I'm happy I've been putting a lot of them away.”

Confidence is at an all-time high in Cincinnati and thoughts are not simply avoiding the “wooden spoon” – the term given to the team that finishes with the fewest points – but rather even the playoffs. On Saturday, Cincinnati visits a Chicago team mired in last place in the East. It is a winnable game that could vault Cincinnati, theoretically, into second place.

“This year the biggest difference for me that I noticed is that every single one of our players is putting in the work,” Vazquez said about the improvement. “Everybody's really hungry and really excited to know that we have a winning team.”

“It was really difficult,” he added about last season. “There was lot of negativity, unfortunately, when you're losing that much. There was a lot of pointing fingers when it was happening, and it wasn't a good atmosphere in training. ... For me personally, I knew I had to stay positive. I wasn't getting as much playing time last year and I had to keep working for myself and putting any extra work and it's paid off for sure.”

Standing 6-foot-3 with a muscular frame, Vazquez has the size to handle the physical side of the game. But lately he’s been working on his finishing and movement inside the box to get into dangerous positions. Such work was evident in the late winner against Minnesota.

“We know Brandon’s physical qualities in giving us the ability to hold the ball and move our lines but also his ability to attack the box and finish plays off," Noonan said of Vazquez. "If you see him after training, he’s working every day with Dominic Kinnear to improve in front of goal. There was no surprise to any of us that he gets us two important goals and helps us win a game with the work that he’s putting in."

Vazquez is also not completely unaware of how his success at Cincinnati plays into a bigger picture. Some of his best friends are on the national team. While it was many years ago, the 2015 U-17 team remains a tight-knit and he is in regular contact with players such as Adams, who is a friend.

One of the more talked about concerns with the U.S. national team heading into the World Cup is the struggle to find a dangerous center forward. The problems are well known and list of options Coach Gregg Berhalter has tried is long.  

Josh Sargent was the first option at the start of qualifying, but he faded after a tough season. Ricardo Pepi appeared to break through but his transfer to Augsburg has been exceptionally difficult, and he has not scored for club or country since October. Jordan Pefok has had a great season and looks set to win the Swiss league’s Golden Boot, but his national team appearances have been unconvincing. Jesus Ferreira has played well but is a different type of forward, moving into midfield more often. Daryl Dike has struggled with injuries. Gyasi Zardes has faded in 2022. A wave of youth prospects such as Sebastian Soto has not emerged.

The upcoming camp for the friendlies against Morocco and Uruguay along with the start of the Nations League could be the last chance for Berhalter to look at new players. Following these games, the only remaining camp before the World Cup will be in September and that will probably be used to fine-tune the team.

Vazquez acknowledges that this has been a big source of motivation for him in recent months. He knows his former U-17 teammate Wright looks set to earn a call-up and his first U.S. cap but Vazquez is hoping to join him.

“For me, anything is possible,” Vazquez said about the national team. “You've seen it before with last-minute players that come in to make the World Cup roster that weren't in qualifying. All I can do right now is keep the same rhythm and keep working. Everything happens for a reason. If I get called upon, then I'm ready for it. I've been wanting to be in that position for years and years. I've dreamt about it. To be close to that opportunity and be in talks for it — it motivates me even more.”

Even if he comes up short this cycle, Vazquez will still be motivated to be in the pool next cycle. The international game has always been important to him. Growing up in San Diego to parents who emigrated from Mexico, his family was fans of both the Mexican national team and Chivas de Guadalajara. He has witnessed the soccer rivalry between both the USA and Mexico first-hand – but his take on it is not with hostility but with admiration.

Seeing both nations co-host the 2026 tournament is exciting, but another source of motivation also goes back to his generation of American players. Youth national team results are of mixed importance, but the 2015 U-17 cycle was a transformative cycle that saw many of its players make groundbreaking steps for American players. Vazquez might be a late bloomer, but he was a big part of that team and wants to follow in the successful steps of his friends and teammates.

“I still talk to most of them,” Vazquez said. “We are an incredibly talented group. A lot of our player pool is on the senior national team. Weston McKennie was a part of those, Reggie Cannon and Djordje Mihailovic as well — very, very good players. We've had so much talent in that age group. Seeing my teammates from then who are playing on a senior national team and not being part of that has always had a fire burning in me — knowing that I could be on that level.”

If he keeps up his current form, he might just earn a reunion with his U-17 teammates.

Photo: Bill Barrett/ISI Photo

15 comments about "Brandon Vazquez of the Pulisic-era U.S. U-17s hits scoring stride with FC Cincinnati".
  1. Perry McIntyre, May 13, 2022 at 5:53 p.m.

    Brandon showed signs of great potential when with AUFC. IMHO, it was a mistake they left him unprotected in the expansion draft, as he could have developed into a contributing member of the squad, especially given Josef's injury issues since then. That said, wishing him the best of luck to find a way into GB's line of sight for WC.

  2. Wooden Ships, May 13, 2022 at 9:28 p.m.

    He definitely needs called up. I'm still a Sargent fan and with Vazquez too, might be the ticket. Both with strong hold up play, work rate, finishing, with service from quality players our attacking-goal scoring might find itself. 

  3. frank schoon replied, May 14, 2022 at 8:45 a.m.

    Ships , I don't get it....Sargent has probably the most experience as a striker in the middle lane and don't forget the extra experience he has had playing attacking right mid. In other words how can Pepi compete with that experience and besides Pepi, has done anything in way of scoring in Europe. Pepi experience of just standing around the penalty box for a cross or pass certainly can't be even compared to Sargent's style and added experience...And besides Sargent is the only player on the front line that's not a Turbo style player, although neither is Pepi but he doesn't have the versatility of Sargent....

  4. Kent James replied, May 14, 2022 at 1:22 p.m.

    I've always been impressed with Sargent's soccer intelligence, touch, and creativity.  He was in a tough spot in the EPL.  It's hard to be a goal scorer when your team is outmatched so often. I hope GB gives him another chance.

  5. frank schoon replied, May 15, 2022 at 11:49 a.m.

    Kent , I look at Sargent's situation as a learning experience at norwich. One of the things what the Ajax lack is 'fight' because they are so good they never have the experience to fight and try to survive like weaker teams have. It is part and parcel of the growth of the player which can help him.

    Although, Sargent didn't plan his situation well since he started playing proball, the situation at Norwich will help him to toughen up and improve his attacking skills. He might not score much at Norwich, but the technical and tactical experience he's gaining will help. This is why I'm anxious to see how he will do at the MNT. Also don't forget, he needs supporting help, in way of making his positive attributes work for him. Remember that discussion we had about Morris playing on the leftwing in one of the last games. He stunk but it wasn't his fault, for the coach didn't place players around him to provide situations as well as position wise for Morris to make him excell in his strengths....and that is what I worry about with Sargent....GB doesn't understand this element of the game

  6. Peter Bechtold, May 13, 2022 at 10:25 p.m.

    Yes, lots of talent and many now familiar names. But why did this not translate into better results ?
    I watched quite a few USMNYouth Teams back in the past two decades. What stood out to me was the poor coaching which did not seem to know how to use talented players. This has been a consistent problem, even with our relatively more acclaimed coaches.
    I just hope that USSF can somehow hire better coaches, and that includes the current USMNT.

  7. frank schoon replied, May 14, 2022 at 8:54 a.m.

    Peter , your statement  that USSF should hire better coaches, meaning licensed coaches, ofcourse...and that is where the problem lies. A license is like tenure in college. Once you have a coaching license , you're set, regardless of how good you are as a coach on the field. The license is the entre so to speak. I don't have a license myself for ,years ago, I decided not to go for one for I saw way too many who have licenses that couldn't take on a lamppost as measurd by my standards. The first thing they look at is your licensed credentials for coaching for they assume they think you know the game...but knowing the game has a lot more to do with other aspects not taught by some nitwit licensed instructor who is good in the classroom

  8. Wooden Ships replied, May 14, 2022 at 11:53 a.m.

    I forget the Brazilian that ways denied his very early on and then USSF running off Hugo Perez. There are other examples too, but those were watershed moments when soccer people should have asked themselves, "what the heck is going on? 

  9. frank schoon replied, May 14, 2022 at 12:22 p.m.

    He was Peruvian, nene cubillas

  10. frank schoon replied, May 14, 2022 at 12:24 p.m.

    Ships ,they didn't want foreigners running the show

  11. Wooden Ships replied, May 14, 2022 at 5:53 p.m.

    Peruvian, that's right. I agree with you to an extent on foreigners. However, we grew up with many 1st, 2nd generation players from Europe (east and west Europeans). The central and South American players, whose style is different have been excluded. Too many in the soccer leadership, didn't have the dribbling skills to match the Latin game and also had an affinity for American football (physical attributes first mentality). Tempo had to be turbo in coaching circles by default. I think we are slowly realizing the technical-thinking-creative skills are most important.

  12. frank schoon replied, May 14, 2022 at 9:07 p.m.

    Ships, what I meant by foreigners is dated. We are talking sometime in the mid 80's when this happened to Cubillas. At that time Cubillas if he got his A license it meant he would be the most experienced player with an USFF ,A license. This was a threat at the time to those who ran the show, Anson Dorrance and his buddies of college coaches.  Paul Gardner wrote one of the best and funniest columns ever on this fiasco of failing Cubillas. I kept it somewhere, PG just blasted the USSF.   And look at Hugo Perez. Just realize at that time  having Perez and Cubillas as two of the most highly rated players, Latinos in an era when we didn't want Latinos ruling the show, as past history shows.  I mean how can you fail a guy like Cubillas who at that time was rated behind Pele as most goals scored in a World Cup.....there is simply no excuse. I knew a guy who received a B license who coached high school and played college soccer and Cubillas was flunked.....

  13. humble 1 replied, May 15, 2022 at 12:10 p.m.

    Intersting threads in the comments.  Speaks volumes about the flacid coaching situation in the USA.  Colleges and HS's do not even require credentials. I have been observing youth soccer now going on a decade, at all levels, I have yet to see a defensive training session.  If you do not/cannot systematically train DEFENDERS, and, you do not have playground as an alternative pathway for DEFENDERS, your nation will NEVER PRODUCE WORLD CLASS STRIKERS.  Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, the three most productive nations for strikers, all produce defenders systematically and from the streets. Wish this kid Vasquez best of luck on his journey.  Plenty of runway.  Keep it going!

  14. frank schoon replied, May 15, 2022 at 3:29 p.m.

    Humble, as the long time assisstant to Johan Cruyff and player scout, the late Tonnie Bruins Slot stated, that today licensed coaches can't teach what players miss when they aren't brought up with pickup soccer. 

    1. He stated that players who learn pickup and played street soccer had more foot intelligence, saw the game faster along with acquiring game savvyness than today's players and coaches.

    2. Trainers/coaches today are better schooled than earlier generations, but the early generations of trainers had a better foundation for the basics knowledge of soccer.  Basic knowledge, much of it is undefinable but it covered all the a,b,c's of soccer. These coaches had a better feel for the game.

    3. Todays' coaches give good training but it is too CLINICAL, METHODICAL, too DIDACTIC in scope, lacking the emphasis on the intuitive.  It was street soccer, pickup soccer, where as you played the kids learned the finer details which you CAN'T put down on paper...the undefinable.
    So todays coaches take much longer to learn the game via books, computer programs, etc therefore the knowledge lacks flow and cohesion in learning the applications of it, unlike a former player who has no problem noticing these things directly.

    4. It is those former players who are able to pickup on the undefinable aspects of the game that coaches today don't learn or acquire at a coaching course.....

  15. Philip Carragher, May 17, 2022 at 12:57 p.m.

    After all these years and with the World Cup looming, it's incredible that U.S. soccer is still fishing around in the men's soccer pool for a goal scorer.

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