TORONTO – Since joining Toronto FC in February shortly after his 30th birthday, Spanish midfielder Victor Vazquez has made a name for himself in MLS halfway through his first season. In the conversation for Newcomer of the Year, his sublime play has brought another dimension to the formidable attack at Greg Vanney's disposal.
A native of Barcelona, Vazquez excelled with Club Brugge in Belgium, but a difficult spell in Mexico with Cruz Azul paved the way for him to join TFC ahead of the 2017 season.
MLSsoccer.com caught up with Vazquez last Thursday, and here's 10 things we learned.
Started out young; a decision to be made
His passion for football began early. He began playing for neighborhood club FC Martinenc at age 5. At 8, he took a step up to CF Damm.
Then FC Barcelona and Espanyol came calling at age 11.
“I was really excited,” recalled Vazquez. “It was a difficult decision. Both teams are amazing; from [my home town], but Barcelona was my team. I chose the best option.”
Mes que un club
That was in 1998. He remained with Barca until 2011, and learned as much about life as football in the process.
“They taught me everything I know,” gushed Vazquez of the Spanish giants. “They are like parents, like teachers, they do everything for you. It's the team of my life. I grew up there.”
But there was one little "frustrating detail," Vazquez said.
“It was difficult also because I couldn't play with the first team a lot," he said. Still, Barcelona's influence on him can't be understated.
“So huge and so big; that's why they are the best team in the world,” said Vazquez. "More than a club.”
Old friends & new links
The friendships forged in those days have stood the test of time, and even now, his rolodex is a who's who of Barcelona stars.
“With Leo [Messi] I lose a bit of contact; he's really busy,” said Vazquez, rattling off the names of Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez. “[Sergio] Busquets is a good friend. ... When you go abroad, you lose contact, but Pique is one of [my best friends].”
Asked if he would recommend MLS, Vazquez said, “for sure.” But only TFC.
“Only good words for this club,” he said. “I don't know the other teams.”
Conventional wisdom is international players need time to adjust to MLS. Not so for Vazquez, who in 17 appearances has scored three times and contributed 10 assists to tie for the league lead with FC Dallas' Michael Barrios.
The only difficulty at the beginning was the weather, coming from sunny Mexico to a frigid Toronto in February.
“Now I don't see anything that makes our life difficult,” smiled Vazquez. “For my family, it's amazing: the city; the people here are really friendly.”
Mexico never quite felt like home, but Toronto is a different story.
“We are really happy, proud to be here,” beamed Vazquez. “Our family is coming from Barcelona [to visit] in two weeks. They want to enjoy the summer here – don't want to come in wintertime. We will show them everything. Toronto is an amazing city.”
Completing the set
Exactly as advertised, according to Greg Vanney, Vazquez has brought a new dimension to TFC. Benoit Cheyrou praised his team ethic, while Michael Bradley raved about how easy playing it is to play with him.
Toronto already had one of the league's finest strike partnerships in Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, not to mention depth in Tosaint Ricketts and Jordan Hamilton, but Vazquez is the link that has seen the side score nearly 0.3 more goals per game than last season (1.79 v 1.50).
“He's changed the dynamic of our team,” explained Eriq Zavaleta. “An even better connect between our defenders, midfielders, and forwards. A different dynamic to our team: the goals, the number of assists he has. We're fortunate that we were able to land him.”
Picking locks, loving assists
Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko called Vazquez the lock picking, creative attacker that the side needed when introducing him to the Toronto audience.
And Vazquez himself insists he prefers making assists to scoring goals, though he's not sure why.
“I don't know,” responded Vazquez. “It's my type of playing. It's easy to understand for me, but not for the people because all players want to score. I'm proud if I give assist, happy if I score goals, but more happy to give assists. This is my skill, my quality.”
It's has rubbed off on teammates, for instance when Altidore unselfishly dished to Giovinco when one-on-one against Joe Bendik in a recent 3-1 win over Orlando City SC.
“At the beginning, no, [I didn't think Jozy would pass],” said Vazquez. “But when I saw Seba running, I thought for sure Jozy was going to give. Seba really likes to score.”
Halfway through the season, his ingenuity in the pass has become clear. Vanney has called him the "most clever attacking midfielder in the league" and praised his ability to think three, four moves ahead.
But his free kick against Columbus Crew SC in a 5-0 demolition was sublime, sneaking it under the wall and into the back of the net as the defenders leaped and the 'keeper could only watch in horror.
“I always try,” beamed Vazquez. “I know the walls are jumping if you are really close to goal. They think if you have the quality to put it over the wall, they can block the ball. I did it twice in Belgium, scored one. And I thought this day also it can happen.
“It's an amazing goal, everybody say "genius," but in my mind it's because all the walls are jumping,” explained Vazquez. “Now, if I have a free-kick, they for sure will not jump. I will try another thing because I'm always thinking.”
A mentor's role
His impact off the pitch has been just as vital for a club looking to develop within, with promising midfielders like Marky Delgado, Jay Chapman and Sergio Camargo pushing for minutes.
The ability to observe Vazquez and pick his brain is a boon to everyone.
“I'm trying always to help everyone, especially the young players,” said Vazquez. “We are really professional, good teammates, if they do the same as we do, Toronto is going to grow even more.”
The source of that effort?
“It's coming from inside,” he explained. “What you know, what you learn, what I learned in Barcelona... you show it to everyone.”
The first words out of Bezbatchenko's mouth when unveiling Vazquez were about his character, an assessment proven time and again in the months since.
“He's been tremendous,” said Toronto assistant Robin Fraser. “Not only a very good player, but a really good person. He's ingratiated himself, fit into the team well. And he cares, about the team, the players. For a guy with his ability, and his personality, it's natural for him to work with others, help mentor younger players. You see him talking to people and just his demeanour. He's made a big impact.”
“Great personality, great locker room guy. Always has a smile on his face, got time for everyone,” continued Fraser. “The group appreciates it.”
Though Vazquez said he had no hobbies outside the norms of eating and going out shopping or to the movies, he did appear keen on the search for good Spanish food, particularly Toronto tapas spots Bar Raval and Bar Isabel.
“Not as good as in Spain," he admitted. "[But] it's not easy: to be here in Toronto, abroad, to have the same food. We like it.”
His recommendations for hungry travelers in Spain?
“Paella, for sure. Pan con tomate and jamon iberico,” said Vazquez. “And the red wine, it's always there on the table.”