Vazquez chose U.S. over Mexico but soon may call Europe home

Long before becoming an MLS star with FC Cincinnati and playing for the United States men's national team, Brandon Vazquez was just another bordertown kid, regularly straddling 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 U.S.-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 Tijuana youth academy.

For the teenager, it was an early lesson in perseverance and patience. "It was pretty crazy," Vazquez told ESPN ahead of the USMNT's Gold Cup opener on Saturday. "I think back to it now and it's like damn, I don't know if I could do that now."

When Vazquez was 13 or 14 years old, the future U.S. international needed to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to get to training in Tijuana by 7:00, and have his Mexico City-born father accompany him on his initial journeys. With training finished and back at the border by 10:00, he would often wait 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 lives were revolving around my soccer, 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 of age and so much potential, the forward has already amassed an MLS Cup title, a U.S. Open Cup championship, an appearance in last year's MLS All-Star Game and a Best XI selection. Pacy, 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.

It's there that he'll have an enticing opportunity to increase his stock even further. With a lifelong aim to traverse across further borders and into European soccer, Vazquez can use the Gold Cup to show not only his national team what he can do, but big clubs abroad, too. Doing so would be a massive accomplishment for the player, especially considering that even though Mexico and the U.S. have given him so much to start his career, at the national team level, both looked elsewhere when it came to the 2022 World Cup.

Finding a national team home

Ni de aquí, ni de allá.

A phrase common in the Mexican-American community, essentially meaning "not from here, or from there," the saying is one that summarizes the emotion of not feeling entirely Mexican or American. It's almost a sense of displacement for someone who isn't sure if they truly belong within either culture.

It's a good summation of Vazquez's national team prospects last year. Despite his sensational form in 2022 with 18 goals (tied fourth overall in MLS) and eight assists for Cincinnati, the MLS Best XI striker, eligible for both the U.S. and Mexico, didn't earn a World Cup call-up for either side. Due to his extensive U.S. youth national team experience and praise from senior coach Gregg Berhalter, the USMNT seemed like it would have been the more probable option. Yet from Mexico, where he began his career, there's been radio silence.

"Nobody," said the dual-national when asked if anybody from Mexico's federation has contacted him. "I haven't heard anything, so yeah, nothing there."

An important factor in his absence from El Tri? More than likely, it was the indifference of former Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino, who didn't have the best connection with Vazquez when they worked together at Atlanta United in 2017 and 2018.

"I didn't really have a great relationship with him," Vazquez said. "He is an incredible team coach, of course. 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 have like -- 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 that we were playing 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 when new coaches and federation staff took charge after the World Cup, but by January of this year, the U.S. finally stepped in for Vazquez. He made his international debut and scored for the USMNT in a 2-1 friendly loss to Serbia on Jan. 25. Two more U.S. friendly appearances have followed and after accepting a call-up for the Gold Cup, he'll soon be cap-tied.

When asked if he felt if he made the right decision to stick with the United States, Vazquez was straightforward: "I'm completely focused on myself with the U.S. national team."

Part of that focus is being part of a thrilling generation of talent that has helped the U.S. become the new giants of Concacaf. No longer living in the shadow of Mexico, the USMNT holds titles in both editions of the Nations League and the last Gold Cup.

With many European-based stars being given a break for this summer's tournament, Vazquez will have an invaluable chance to shine for a squad that is gaining more international recognition and respect. Noteworthy clubs overseas are looking at what's happening in the U.S., and it's no surprise to see Vazquez's name as a rumored target for teams abroad.

Patiently waiting for his moment to prosper in the Old World, it wasn't too long ago when it seemed like the odds of his dream transfer were not in his favor.

Enduring 'frustrating' years in Atlanta

At first, Vazquez thought that 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 through a domestic cup match in August 2016. Appearing set to become an important frontline contributor with his new roster, he felt optimistic about the move.

"It was [supposed to be] a stepping stone to go to Europe, because of course my objective, my whole career, my whole life, has been to go to Europe," Vazquez said. But that optimism quickly faded with the spotlight shining on a different forward recruit: Josef Martinez.

"Josef signed with Atlanta, and yeah, I never really saw the field after that," said Vazquez, who didn't start once under Martino. "It was just a couple of long, hard years for me. Very frustrating."

With Martinez taking the league by storm, scoring an eye-catching 77 goals in the three years Vazquez was with Atlanta, the Chula Vista native was left to scrap for playing time. A gradual increase in minutes did arrive 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 U.S. Open Cup crown.

Things were starting to look up, but his true impact in American soccer would arrive 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 a different team? A tactical alteration? A new coaching influence?

"A little bit of everything," said Vazquez about his trade to Cincinnati in late 2019. "I mean, obviously I didn't change much as a player, I was always this player, but I think it was just the trust 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 impacts of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 -- Vazquez was nothing short of brilliant last year. Bolstered by the hires of manager Pat Noonan and assistant Dominic Kinnear ahead of the 2022 season, Vazquez finally had the backing of a staff who entrusted the player with a starting role.

The forward also found a connection with playmaker Luciano Acosta and fellow forward Brenner, forming an outstanding trio that led the Orange-and-Blue to 64 goals in 34 regular-season matches. After finishing dead last in each of its first three seasons in the league, Cincinnati ended 2022 fifth 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 six in 17 games across all competitions -- but that shouldn't deter the go-to starter who has done more support work for the team sitting at the top of the Supporters' Shield standings. When watching Vazquez this season, there's more to his distribution, carrying of the ball, 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 stuff just hasn't gotten my way, [but] the work that I put in has helped us be in first place this whole year. I think it's not just an accident that we're in first place. I think we're all pulling our strings together to be where we are today."

His fortunes in front of goal are improving, too. Crucially ahead of the Gold Cup, Vazquez has scored four times in his past eight games in all competitions. "I've been working the same routine that 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 forward does eventually make a move to Europe, it likely won't be in this summer's transfer window. In a similar manner to his willingness to do more in a supporting role on the field, the same could be said of his off-the-field intentions.

"I've had those talks with Cincinnati," Vazquez said. "With Brenner leaving this summer (to Serie A's Udinese), it's pretty hard to find a replacement, and to just find a replacement for both of us if I was to leave, and Cincinnati doesn't want me to go just yet.

"We're striving to win a championship, so hopefully in the winter there could be something that could get worked out."

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 kid. "I had a [Chivas] jersey in my closet my whole childhood," Vazquez said. "My mom's side of the family is from Guadalajara, everybody was a Chivas fan."

Chivas, whom Vazquez and Cincinnati will face on July 27 in the Leagues Cup, wouldn't give him a more likely path to Europe. "I think ultimately that was a decision that I thought was best for me and my career," he said. "Obviously [I'm] very comfortable here in Cincinnati. I love the coaching staff, I love the training ground, my teammates, the fans. Everything has been set up to help me succeed.

"I thought if I stay in Cincinnati, it'll give me the fastest route and best route to get to Europe."

Patiently anticipating the next major leap across borders and into the elite world of international soccer, and with the Gold Cup around the corner as a possible catalyst, Vazquez could soon get his wish.