FC Cincinnati striker Brandon Vazquez has been one of the real success stories of the 2022 MLS regular season, going from a backup fighting for starter’s minutes to being firmly on manager Gregg Berhalter’s radar for a possible US men’s national team call-up ahead of November’s FIFA World Cup.
The 23-year-old, who just earned a new long-term contract, remains uncapped at the senior level. But with 16 goals on the season, three behind Austin FC's Sebastian Driussi for the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi lead, shouts are growing for an international opportunity and ticket to Qatar.
Could that chance come, possibly as soon as the USMNT’s September window friendlies against Japan (Sept. 23) and Saudi Arabia (Sept. 27) in Europe? Pat Noonan feels there’s a strong argument, as the Cincy first-year head coach outlined on the Futbol with Grant Wahl podcast.
“I think if he continues in the form that he's in, just in terms of goalscoring alone, because that's such an important part of that position, that his name will continue to be brought up in the coming months,” Noonan said.
“And certainly, I think there's still things at the international level that if he wants to make an even stronger case, we can improve on some areas with and without the ball to help continue to make him a stronger player and a more complete player. But I think it would be silly to not have his name involved in the coming months if his form continues.”
Vazquez earned 2022 MLS All-Star recognition earlier this August, growing into one of MLS’s most-dangerous strikers while playing alongside Brenner and Luciano Acosta.
“He's an incredible character, something that embodies everything that we want here at the club, with his on-field performance, with his team-first mentality, with his locker room presence,” Noonan said. “He’s been outstanding and he’s a hungry player. He's not settling with where he's at. I think that's why he's had the season he has, is because he's looking to improve. He's constantly asking questions of what he can do better, how he can be more efficient, with and without the ball."
Vazquez’s emergence is all part of Cincinnati’s turnaround in 2022, going from finishing bottom of the league in each of their first three seasons (2019-21) to now being a possible Audi MLS Cup Playoffs contender.
That marked improvement is the byproduct of Noonan, along with general manager Chris Albright, helping change the culture within the club. They're currently eighth in the Eastern Conference table, one point below a potential historic playoff berth with seven matches remaining.
“The message early on was to try to create a belief, but a belief that was realistic and not giving these players in this group, staff members, everybody involved, a false sense of reality. It was not going to be perfect early on, we're going to lose games,” said Noonan, a former Philadelphia Union assistant coach. “We're still trying to build relationships and figure each other out.
"This is our first go at it, with our particular group, so there has to be a level of open-mindedness in terms of new ideas and failures short term as we work through some things. Whether it was again, how we want to play, whether it was expectations and accountability. We talked a lot about it, those expectations and accountability in the early days.”
The start was slow – FC Cincinnati were 2W-5L-1D after the first eight games – and it looked like 2022 would be more of the same. They're not perfect by any means, having won just once since late June, but Noonan sees real progress from the group he inherited and has built upon with Matt Miazga, Obinna Nwobodo and more.
"I know you hear that all the time," Noonan began, "but if we're going to do anything special, if we're going to have a season that's just not about subtle improvements, if we want to make big improvements, then there has to be this willingness to be open to new ideas and failures, but find ways to push each other and find ways to create an environment where we could survive moments of struggle.
"And I think we got that from the players in different ways, some slower than others, because I think we're seeing progress from individuals that, early on, really struggled," Noonan continued. "And so those players buying in more to certain things has helped our group become more complete. Again, putting results aside, I think we're much stronger now than we were even two months ago."
These strides forward have fans at TQL Stadium buzzing at the possibility of postseason soccer in Cincinnati as well as future success. And Noonan shares those dreams — of hosting a playoff game, of competing in the Concacaf Champions League and, ultimately, lifting trophies.
“I do think it's achievable with our ownership group, the support we have, their willingness to provide the resources to help us be successful,” Noonan said. “These are attainable goals, but certainly how do we get there becomes a challenge and I think those are things in the future that I would love to see for FCC. But we know that there's a lot of work that has to be done to achieve those goals, but I do think that is realistic.”
For more from Noonan, check out his full interview on the Futbol with Grant Wahl podcast.