The 2015 U17 World Cup was largely forgettable from an American perspective. The U.S. was blown out of the water against Chile and Nigeria, and it went into a shell after going up 2-0 on Croatia and was forced to settle for a 2-2 draw it almost didn’t even secure.
Needless to say, the individual reports weren’t sparkling. Nobody, save two notables, did much to advance their reputation above what we already knew. One was, unsurprisingly, Christian Pulisic, who was just months away from his first cap with the USMNT.
The other? The little-known Brandon Vazquez. And apparently Atlanta United was paying attention.
On Friday, Atlanta United announced it had signed Vazquez from Tijuana via the league’s oft misunderstood Discovery Claim system. The mechanism, notably the impetus for Bruce Arena’s rant that the Revs had “blackmailed” them over Sebastian Lletget, is essentially in place as a dibs system. Teams can put a discovery claim on anyone – the Union have Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s for whatever that’s worth – and it’s mostly used to stake out star players in the off chance they choose to come to MLS some day.
It’s flawed with icon players for the same reason betting on a turtle race is flawed. There’s a chance the turtle reaches the finish line, but there’s an equal (if not greater) chance he simply sits inside his shell and ponders Kantian philosophy. In any case, the turtle’s ultimately the one choosing. The Chicago Fire had a Discovery Claim on Didier Drogba, for instance, but Drogba wanted to self-determine his club like any star would. So he finagled his way to Montreal instead. The league could either accept Drogba’s terms or let him go elsewhere. The choice wasn’t hard to make.
But the claims process does have value vis-a-vis young players who actually do need discovering. Vazquez wasn’t exactly a secret, and the idea that Atlanta “discovered” him in so many words is farcical. But while much of the rest of the league was building their claims on the Wayne Rooneys of the world (I believe this is what the children term thirsty), Atlanta United went young.
This is merely the latest in a rippling stream of fledgling personnel successes for Atlanta United. The one-two front office combination of GM Carlos Bocanegra and director of soccer ops Paul McDonough has been a tornado of shrewdness in a relatively short period of time. First, of course, was the decision to incorporate the wildly successful Georgia United academy to give the region’s best young talent HG eligibility from the jump.
Since then, they’ve already signed two Homegrowns in Chris Goslin and Andrew Carleton (more than San Jose has signed in its history, which is where you mentally insert the Kermit Drinking Tea photo), pulled in a massive young South American talent in Hector Villalba, signed an MLS-ready target forward in Kenwyne Jones and now this. Atlanta United’s roster will be further stocked with journeymen after the Expansion Draft, and it’ll probably pick up a day one contributor with its No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft. That’s in addition to any further signings it undertakes in the three months between now and first kick. Those DP slots are dangling open, invitingly.
The Vazquez signing in particular signals intent. A U19 MNT player, Vazquez is a relative latecomer to the USMNT prospect scene and will be one of Richie Williams’ lasting legacies from the 2013-15 U17 cycle. Some combination of Joe Gallardo and Haji Wright had typically played up top for the U.S. for most of the cycle, but Vazquez made a late push. He didn’t really factor into the equation until he burst onto the scene at a U17 tournament in the Czech Republic just two months before the World Cup.
At 6-foot-3 and willing to use his girth to find positioning, he was an answer to the No. 9 question Williams had been unable to answer the previous two years. And he was in the form of his life.
Vazquez ultimately scored two of the U.S.’s three goals in the tourney, and both were pure No. 9 goals. A header smashed just underneath the crossbar in the run of play against Croatia and an opportunistic pickpocket that led to a clinical finish under pressure against host Chile.
Vazquez is a No. 9, pure and simple, and Atlanta United just linked him up with training partner Kenwyne Jones, who has 61 career goals in the Premier League and is basically the same type of forward. This is incredibly good news for both parties.
In any case, it’s hard to understand why more MLS clubs don’t follow this track. With the cap rules as restrictive as they are, it makes far more sense to buy young, cheap and in bulk as opposed to going old, expensive and sporadic. Even on a DP salary, that’s a $500,000 chunk out of a $3.5 million salary cap. Vazquez will cost a fraction of that, and you have the benefit of molding him into the system player you need. Andrea Pirlo will be molded in New York insofar as he finds new taste in wine.
Whatever happens on the field, Atlanta United continues to outpace the competition off it.