In a few days, Victor Vazquez will be part of the team that puts together the greatest regular season in MLS history, but right now he’s sitting in a computer chair doing his best to convince a stranger he isn’t lying, or even stretching the truth. Toronto FC’s Barcelona-born midfielder has his arms raised for emphasis. “Honestly,” Vazquez says, palms facing up and brow furrowed and head nodding, “winning was boring.”
Outrageous as it sounds, he means it. But it’s not the winning he’s been doing lately that Vazquez speaks of, those MLS record-tying 20 victories in 2017 and the highest-ever points total that make TFC the favourite this post-season. Vazquez had been talking about his four-year-old son, Leo, who recently started playing with a Toronto-based FC Barcelona soccer club that Vazquez found, “because I am crazy about Barcelona,” and it got him thinking back to when he was a teenager, playing in the famed La Masia youth academy alongside friends who’d grow out of the need for first names, like Messi and Iniesta. Vazquez’s youth team, for reasons now glaringly apparent, didn’t lose a game for four straight years. “It was crazy,” he says, eyes wide. Vasquez’s black hair is still sweaty, and he’s sitting down the hall from the locker room at Kia Training Ground after a morning practice, wearing flip flops, black Adidas pants rolled nearly to his knees and a red TFC shirt. “We made other challenges,” he explains, to stay motivated back then. If Messi scored three goals in one game, “I want to score four next game.” When the dream team’s winning streak came to an end, Vazquez was 15 and even the coach cried. Vazquez was crushed. “But,” he says, “then we had a new challenge.”
So, too, does TFC. While the dominance isn’t close to that stacked Barcelona team, this Toronto squad is the one to beat, a year after coming oh-so-close to a first championship in franchise history. For Vazquez, the 30-year-old with the incredible pedigree, it would make for a perfect first season in MLS. He had his sights set on two goals heading into this year: To stay healthy and, he says, matter-of-factly, “to win trophies.”
If TFC wins the big one, the likeable, fast-talking attacking midfielder with an infectious passion for soccer and family will be a major reason why. League-wide, only New York Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan had more than Vazquez’s 16 assists this season. As coach Greg Vanney puts it: “Victor’s given us a really different look.” This team had for years been searching for someone to feed the firepower forwards; to be a conduit and unlock the attacking potential of its front line, which today includes stars Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Vazquez has proven thus far to be that missing puzzle piece, and you could argue that nobody in the lineup influences the game like he does. Says Vanney: “He has an ability to play at a high speed and with ideas that are faster than anyone else.”
A broad grin crosses Vazquez’s face when he tries to explain what’s going through that head of his as he’s making split-second decisions and finding teammates — like that perfectly timed pass he made back in August to a streaking Nicolas Hasler, who headed it home against Chicago. “I think this comes naturally,” says Vazquez. “I don’t like to speak about myself,” he adds, which is something you’ll also hear from his teammates, because despite the elite soccer upbringing, Vazquez has a team-first humility. “I learn this in Barcelona, that’s all,” he adds. “These balls, you put there because you have the feeling.”
Vazquez developed that feeling because he’s from where he’s from, because he grew up soccer-obsessed, because his dad, Jesus, was soccer-obsessed, too. Jesus played until he was 40 in second- and third-division leagues, and spent one season with FC Barcelona’s third team. Vazquez was an only child (he now has a 19-year-old sister, on his dad’s side) and his parents divorced when he was four, the same year he suited up on his first team. All his free time was spent playing. “I take the ball and I go. If I have a goal, I kick on goal; otherwise I hit the wall,” Vazquez says. “I want to be with the ball, you know?”
He first played for CF Damm, and at age nine, he faced an FC Barcelona youth team for the first time, scoring all three goals in a 3-1 win. After the game, the Barcelona coach approached Jesus and tried to recruit his son, but Jesus shut down the request, thinking Vazquez was too young. Vazquez continued to play for CF Damm the rest of that season and the next, and the focus was on fun rather than winning. When the Barcelona coach sought him out again at age 11, Jesus left the decision to his son. “Finally, I took this step forwards and I said to my dad, ‘OK, we go,’” says Vazquez, who played striker back then. “It was [a] big decision because with Barcelona you have to win all the time. I feel the pressure that I was going to a team that you have to show every time that you are the best.”
It was with Barcelona’s youth academy teams that Vazquez learned to deliver the ball forward as quickly as possible to otherworldly talents like Messi. “We were taking control of everything, but because we are not that fast with the movement like Messi, we have to try to be fast, controlling the ball and giving the ball fast to the players that are faster,” Vazquez explains.
He fulfilled a childhood dream in 2008 when he made his first appearance with FC Barcelona’s first team, coming off the bench in the last 20 minutes during a 2-2 tie. “I will remember always because I had to play in front with Ronaldinho and [Samuel] Eto’o. I was like, ‘OK, wow,’” Vazquez says, grinning and wide-eyed. He was 18 years old and shaking like a leaf from the nerves, but managed to settle into his game after a minute. Vazquez got another opportunity with the team that season, but the following year, he badly injured his right knee. It was the first of two disappointments that eventually brought him to Toronto.
Vazquez puts a hand on his right knee cap and simulates it moving three inches right, nearly to the back of his leg. That’s where it was when the team doctor ran onto the field during a game in 2009 and returned his patella it to its usual position. The 21-year-old old Vazquez stood up immediately. “I want to play,” he told the doctor. But the pain kicked in five minutes later and he crumpled to the ground. An MRI the next day revealed he’d be out for a year, minimum. Vazquez cried when he heard the news. “It was really hard because I knew I was really close to playing with the first team,” he says. “Not for forever, but maybe.” Coach Pep Guardiola gave it to Vazquez straight: “You lost your chance,” he told him. So many talented players were coming up behind Vazquez — he rattles of a list that includes Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara — and they’d all improve while he was trying to walk again.
But 14 months after the injury, the first 90 days of recovery spent basically immobile save for crutch-assisted trips from couch to hospital, Vazquez did make it back into Barcelona’s first team lineup, and even scored a goal. “Then I thought my time it [had] come back again,” Vazquez says. “But Guardiola said he gave me this chance because I deserved it, because I was working really hard, because he loved me, because since 11 years old I was a good player. But he had other players who were more fit.” Vazquez was told he could probably make the team, but would either be on the bench or playing more often with the second team. And so, after 14 years with FC Barcelona, he decided he was done.
Vazquez expanded his focus beyond La Liga and signed with Club Brugge of the Belgian Pro League in April of 2011. It was a learning curve, to be sure. He spoke zero English and nobody else on the roster spoke Spanish. He’d sit in the locker room watching and listening to his teammates, trying to pick up any words he could. Hand movements and white boards were his means of communication. Among the first English words he learned were useful phrases on the pitch: “Watch out. Be careful. Stay forward. Look behind you.” After six months, a backup keeper who spoke a bit of Spanish joined the team, which helped, because as Vazquez says, “I [still] could not have a conversation” in English. Six months after that, however, he was having those conversations.
It took Vazquez about a year to adjust to this new league, too — to feel comfortable on the pitch and to fully regain his fitness. Once he did, he went on to become one of Club Brugge’s most prolific players ever — a reporter there nicknamed him “El Mago” (The Magician) and the name stuck. In five seasons, Vazquez had 75 points in 173 appearances, and in 2014–15 he was named Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year, leading his team to the Belgian Cup and to a second-place finish in the league.
Wanting a new challenge and in search of a higher standard of play, Vazquez was then sold to Cruz Azul of Mexico’s top pro league, Liga MX. He signed a three-year contract, but asked to be transferred after the first because he and his family weren’t happy. “It was because of a lot of problems in the club,” he explains. “The teams were going really in the wrong way, all the players were mad, were sad.” His family’s unhappiness in the city also affected his play. “If they are worried, I’m worried,” he says. “Then I cannot play 100 per cent.”
You need only look at Vazquez to see how important family is. A partially-finished sleeve tattoo on his left arm is full of references to his wife, Andrea, and to Leo, his grandmother and his sister. Vazquez gets up from his chair and lifts the back of his shirt to reveal a sentence scrawled up his spine, for his wife: “Life is meaningless without you, forever yours.”
After he signed with TFC in February of 2017, Vazquez and his family moved to North York, minutes away from teammate, Michael Bradley. Leo goes to the same school as Bradley’s kids, Luca and Quinne, and the Bradley family has been helpful in showing the Vazquez family around the neighbourhood. In Toronto, happiness off the field is helping translate to good play on it. “We are happy, everyone can see it,” Vazquez says. “I’m playing well, my family is so, so happy because I’m playing well, and everything is going well, you know?”
It’s a welcome development, because Vazquez wasn’t sure how he’d fare in his third league in as many years. “I was a bit worried,” he says, but he believes playing in Bruges helped him to adapt quickly to the MLS pace. Vazquez finds the play here more physical than it was in Belgium, but he still hit the ground running, scoring his first of eight goals in his third game, and quickly becoming the deliverer of passes that lead to scoring opportunities. “I see the other team when they play against us, they have to run a lot because we are moving the ball fast,” he says. And often the reason the ball is moving fast is on account of Vazquez: In one game this season, according to MLS.com, he recorded a whopping 83 completed passes in the opposition’s end of the field alone.
Vazquez likes to have the ball, but for brief moments, and Vanney immediately noticed the impact of his new player on the rest of the team’s movements. “His soccer IQ has played a huge role in our team’s ability to play on both sides, in possession and in attack, but also defensively because he’s clever about how he defends — he gets in good spots,” the coach says. “It’s his awareness of the field, where are the spaces he takes up, where his teammates are, where the opposition is. He catches the ball and he has the ball off his foot in a way that it’s moving into the next action so quickly. Victor always manages to find the time, organizes himself and knows what the next action is to put the opposition’s back line under pressure. It’s a product of how he’s different within our group.”
It’s often Bradley spearheading movement from the back, getting Vazquez the ball so he can feed it to the goal-scorers. “When he does that well, it means that Seba and Jozy’s opportunities are a lot better than when they have to create them on their own,” Vanney says. “Linking our group together in the attacking half has been enormous.”
Fellow midfielder Marky Delgado noticed Vazquez’s elite passing ability and vision on the first day of training camp. “His positioning is great, his head’s always moving, he’s seeing everything. You could tell right away he’s a world-class player,” Delgado says. “His ability to see things before they even come up at the moment is incredible. You’ll think he’s going one way and then he’s passing it the other way.”
It’s possible that sometimes his teammates don’t quite expect those passes. Vazquez isn’t one to toot his own horn, and he says he makes mistakes on the field often, but also: “Sometimes you make a great pass and maybe the winger, they didn’t go, and I say, ‘What the f—,’ you know? ‘You have to be there,’” he says. Vanney calls Vazquez a “selfless guy who shares his knowledge and his experiences with the group,” and in that leadership sense, he’s been valuable. Delgado says if he’s struggling, he’ll ask Vazquez what he can improve on.
TFC has long had strong midfielders who can help the team hang onto the ball. “But their strength isn’t necessarily the final pass, the quality to really split that pass,” Vanney explains. “Victor is definitely a missing piece in terms of what we were looking to add this off-season. He has been a shining star in that way.” That playmaking ability is why Vazquez is considered a favourite for the league’s Newcomer of the Year award, and why many believe he should be in the conversation for MLS MVP.
As TFC opens the conference semi-final against the Red Bulls, Vazquez realizes it’ll be a different level of competition. After ending the regular season with a tie, he hopes the team can get back to its dominant play, that they’ll rattle off a string of victories like they have previously in this best-ever season. “To win a lot of games, it’s really important for me,” he says. “I like to win always, and we are doing really well. I’m happy, my family’s happy and everything is going like we wanted.”
And so, there’s just one more thing on Vazquez’s checklist for his first season with TFC: Win trophies — including that big one, for the first time in franchise history.
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