MARIETTA, Ga. — With four goals in his past two games, Brandon Vazquez has emerged as Atlanta United’s backup to Josef Martínez at center forward. In recent weeks, as Martínez has been with the Venezuela men’s national team, Vazquez led Atlanta past the Charleston Battery and Columbus Crew and into the 2019 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals.
With La Vinotinto advancing to the Copa America quarters and Martínez still away in Brazil, Atlanta manager Frank de Boer said Vazquez will start at center forward Wednesday against Toronto FC. It will be the 20-year-old’s first start for the Five Stripes in Major League Soccer play.
Romario Williams was among Atlanta’s initial XI for its Open Cup fourth-round game against Charleston, and he scored an equalizing goal. But Vazquez’s introduction as a substitute in the 74th minute made Atlanta more dangerous in attack. Vazquez scored the winning goal in extra time and added another for insurance. He earned a start at Columbus in the round of 16 and bagged two more goals in a 3-2 victory.
“He has momentum right now,” de Boer told reporters Monday. “You see in three games he scored five goals: one with [Atlanta United 2] and four with the first team. As a coach, you want to use that momentum, of course.”
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The Five Stripes signed Vazquez in December 2016. Former manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino deployed the player as a winger in 2017 and ’18. Vazquez made 21 appearances and scored one goal over those two seasons. When de Boer took over, he moved the United States youth international back to his natural position leading the line.
“Everybody sees that he is a striker,” the manager said. “He’s strong, he can hold the ball, he can be a rest point when we kick the ball long and he did a great job against Columbus. Of course, his work rate is fantastic.”
Vazquez and Martínez offer different skill sets. While he is good in the air thanks to an incredible vertical leap, Martínez is not the most physical forward at 5-foot-7 and 154 pounds. He participates in the buildup when Atlanta possesses the ball this year, but he still looks to burst beyond the opposing back line to get on the end of early through balls and crosses. Martinez’s explosive acceleration makes him lethal in this regard.
“Josef’s obviously looking to stretch the game a little bit more with those runs in behind,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said Monday. “He’s made a career out of making those runs. Him and Julian [Gressel], especially providing that service for him.”
On the other hand, Vazquez stands 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds. He is more likely to check back to the ball than to play off a defender’s back shoulder. When Atlanta passes around the attacking third, Vazquez can be more dangerous as a late runner into the penalty area. De Boer said that because he is “a tall guy,” Vazquez would “have to be Usain Bolt” to beat defenders with acceleration and speed.
“Brandon’s a little bigger guy, stronger guy, so more of a target forward: [playing] into feet and laying it off and things like that,” Nagbe added.
Vazquez and Romario Williams have been in close competition to be the preferred option when Martínez is unavailable. Williams held the job in 2018, and he was the de facto No. 2 as Vazquez recovered from a knee injury earlier this season. Now, Vazquez has moved up on the depth chart and is playing with confidence.
When Martínez returns from international duty, he will slot in at center forward, no questions asked. Until then, de Boer is riding the hot hand, and Vazquez for the first time is showing Atlanta and the rest of MLS what he can do.