One goal. Zero goals. Two goals. Two goals. Four goals. Fourteen goals. Wait, 14 goals? That can’t be right. Let me check again.
Yep, that’s right.
Brandon Vazquez is in the midst of a true breakout season. After scoring less than five goals in his limited time on the field during each of his first five seasons in MLS, the 23-year-old striker has 14 goals so far in 2022. He’s second in the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race and is one of the stars behind FC Cincinnati’s vastly improved on-field results.
This kind of breakout doesn’t happen very often. Or, at the very least, it doesn’t happen on this scale and at this level very often. And yet, here we are. With the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup only a few months away, Vazquez’s rise is happening at just the right time.
So what’s behind this breakout season? What makes Vazquez so special? And why should he be on a plane to Qatar?
Let’s talk about that.
What makes Vazquez so good?
When you sit down to really analyze a No. 9, a great place to start is with their movement inside the box. The ability to make regular, sharp and incisive runs that take defenders out of plays is what separates a serviceable striker from a 15-20 goalscorer. After all, players spend the vast majority of the game without the ball at their feet. So what they do off the ball has a massive impact on the game.
When you watch Vazquez’s tape, you see a savvy off-ball runner.
According to Second Spectrum, Cincy’s striker is in the 95th percentile in expected goals per 90 minutes among MLS players with at least 1,000 minutes. That means Vazquez moves into good spots and shoots from good spots. Take this sequence from FC Cincinnati’s recent 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union. Vazquez starts outside the defender before making a hard run to the near post and finishing just outside the six-yard box.
It’s a lovely move from the 23-year-old.
Here’s another bit of smart off-ball movement from Vazquez that sets up a goalscoring chance. He sees a soft spot in Minnesota United FC’s defense, moves into that soft spot, and scores a tap-in. So many of Vazquez’s goals this year stem directly from savvy off-ball work.
GOAL: Brandon Vázquez, FC Cincinnati - 93rd minute
His work in the box isn’t the only thing that makes Vazquez a dangerous No. 9, though. He can also be an asset in transition with his speed and hold-up play.
At 6-foot-2 and almost 200 pounds, Vazquez is a force. Per Second Spectrum, he leads MLS in hold-ups per 90 minutes. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, Second Spectrum defines a hold-up as a moment when “a player on the team in possession uses their body to shield a defender from the ball in an attempt to retain possession.” This whole thread from Matt “I watch 89 hours of soccer every weekend” Doyle is a great illustration of how useful Vazquez can be at bringing down long balls and serving as a sort of one-man fastbreak.
According to Second Spectrum, Vazquez is in the 72nd percentile in MLS in top sustained speed this season. He’s not going to beat you with his speed every time he gets on the ball, but he can certainly blow by a slower defender on the break.
Now, for as promising as some of these back-to-goal moments are, I want to be clear: Vazquez is still a work in progress outside the box. He holds the ball up a ton, but he’s only in the 60th percentile in hold-up retention among MLS players with at least 1,000 minutes in 2022. He retains the ball 57.6% of the time in hold-up situations, which isn’t a number to write home about.
Still, given that Vazquez has only played 4,432 total minutes in his MLS career (with almost half of those minutes coming this season), I’d wager that more on-field experience will help him iron out those loose touches with his back to goal.
Vazquez moves off-the-ball in the box, he finds space to work as an outlet when his team is in possession, and he’s a willing presser. The 23-year-old is in the 90th percentile among strikers in pressures per 90 minutes this year, among players with at least 1,000 minutes.
Vazquez doesn’t have a ton of professional experience, but his growth on the field in MLS this year has been something to behold.
According to recent reports, we’re not the only ones noticing Vazquez’s rapid rise. An, uh, interesting, report went around last week that stated Liga MX’s Chivas Guadalajara approached FC Cincinnati about Vazquez, who is a Mexican-American dual-national. According to the report, Chivas cited a Transfermarkt valuation of $550,000 in their approach. In response, Cincinnati apparently asked for $5 million for Vazquez.
I don’t know how accurate any of that reporting is, but based on some of the recent fees attached to outgoing MLS transfers, even that $5 million figure looks low.
Daryl Dike, a player who didn’t have Vazquez’s excellent underlying numbers during his time in MLS, left Orlando City SC for almost $10 million last winter to West Bromwich Albion (England's Championship). Dike is a couple of years younger, but there’s no doubt that Vazquez is putting in more consistent and repeatable performances. To pull in another example, Tajon Buchanan moved from the New England Revolution to Club Brugge in Belgium for a reported $7 million fee. Buchanan is also a little younger than Vazquez, but both are rising talents.
If Vazquez continues to score goals and shores up some of his deficiencies, his market value is only going to increase. A World Cup appearance in November would certainly help his cause, too.
How does he compare to other US Soccer strikers?
Given that the US men’s national team still has something of a question mark in their No. 9 depth chart where the starter is supposed to be, Vazquez’s emergence really couldn’t have come at a better time.
Before we get too deep down the USMNT rabbit hole, I want to remind us all one more time that Vazquez is eligible for both the US and Mexico. Vazquez told FOX Sports Radio in Mexico last month that he’s “open to the two national teams…the two doors are open, I'm ready for anything, for whatever comes and I am prepared for any of the two."
Then there's also this:
Guard your hearts, US fans.
If we set aside the possibility that Vazquez might play for Mexico, he’s earned the chance at a spot on the USMNT’s roster for the September international window vs. World Cup-bound nations Japan and Saudi Arabia. By outperforming Jesus Ferreira in MLS this year, Vazquez is the top American striker in MLS right now. Heck, he’s the top-performing American striker in the world right now. Even if we label Ferreira as a lock for Qatar because of how he drops deep to overload opposing midfields, there are probably two other striker spots available on Gregg Berhalter's depth chart.
After Haji Wright didn’t check the boxes for Berhalter in June, Vazquez should have the edge over Wright. Until Josh Sargent starts scoring goals and playing as an actual No. 9 (and not a right winger) in the English Championship for Norwich City, it’s difficult to see a way back for him into the national team before the World Cup. Ricardo Pepi is a bench player for Augsburg right now in the Bundesliga. The same goes for Dike in England. That’s not to say that Pepi and Dike couldn’t impact the national team, but at this point, Vazquez’s performances make him the more intriguing option.
With Jordan Pefok scoring for Union Berlin in Germany's Bundesliga, Pefok could be Berhalter’s true late-game aerial threat. That leaves a spot open in the No. 9 depth chart for Vazquez to join the US in September and then, potentially, in November for the World Cup.
The US have been crying out for a regular goalscoring No. 9. In Vazquez, they may have finally found one.