For the first time in what's likely a long time, Brandon Vazquez is frustrated with his play. He's even angry about it at times.
Vazquez is materially contributing in other areas for undefeated FC Cincinnati. Through four match in 2023, he has a team-leading 13 shots, has hit the post or crossbar a handful of times and assisted on a teammate's score, and yet he's still visibly bothered by the state of his contributions.
If the bounces were going his was in 2023, as they did during his breakout 2022 campaign, Vazquez might have three or four goals by now. Each of FC Cincinnati's first four games have held at one close chance for him. But the bounces aren't going Vazquez's way and the other things going well aren't enough to sustain his spirit right now.
"I know my holdup game's been pretty good and my runs and stuff, but at the end of the day, as a forward, it hurts to not score," Vazquez said during a Thursday interview at the Mercy Health Training Center in Milford.
This angst marks a new chapter in Vazquez's story at FC Cincinnati. It's one in which he's balancing the expectations that come with being an MLS All-Star playing under the new contract he signed last year while also struggling through a a quirky goalless drought where, again, most things are going well except for the ball hitting the back of the net.
"It's been frustrating. Very, very frustrating because, like you said, I feel like I'm just inches away from having three or four goals already," Vazquez said. "Still yet to hit the back of the net. It makes me angry. It makes me hungrier but it's part of the game ... the only thing to do is to keep working every single day to be myself and to be ready for the next game. I know the next opportunity will be there and I have to be as ready as possible and as confident as possible. If my confidence is down, then it's going to affect me on the field and, yeah, it's hard to be positive sometimes but at the end of the day, we're doing what we love for a living for a living and I have to remind myself to enjoy the small things."
The origins of the Vazquez scoring drought
On paper, Vazquez's scoring drought is comparable to others he's had since GM Chris Albright arrived to FC Cincinnati in September 2021. That's when Vazquez started to receive consistent minutes as a starter, and few have raised concerns about his play during that period.
Just this past September, Vazquez had an otherwise unremarkable four-game stretch in which he didn't score. Few if any alarm bells sounded inside or outside the club, and Vazquez went on to score four more times in 2023, including in a vital Decision Day win at D.C. United and a week later against New York Red Bulls in the postseason.
Even before Vazquez's rapid ascent to league-wide stardom in 2022, MLS match logs show he'd gone far longer than five matches between goals at Cincinnati. And now-former FCC manager Jaap Stam's insistence on bringing Vazquez in off the bench during a record-setting run of substitute appearances in 2021 was potentially a far more discouraging period in his career.
Vazquez came through those situations and flourished.
So, what's changed for Vazquez and his scoring touch during this particular drought? Is it a problem at all, or maybe just a problem of outside perception?
For starters, it hasn't helped that multiple key FC Cincinnati players have been slow out of the gate in 2023. After Vazquez, Brenner Souza da Silva and Luciano Acosta combined for 46 goals and 33 assists last season, the trio has combined for a goal and two assists in MLS play so far in 2023.
That the club's "big three" attacking talents aren't firing on all cylinders has allowed for heightened scrutiny.
Vazquez also started his 2023 in stunning fashion with USMNT and then fell off the pace after more than a year's worth of timely offensive contributions. For some players, the inverse can occur: Club success gives ways to drought at the international level where the competition is typically cutthroat for every player on the field.
Vazquez scored on his USMNT debut Jan. 25. His nodded header from close range signified a huge moment in his career, but it was also the kind of goal − a big one on a big stage − that he made look routine at FC Cincinnati over the preceding 14 months.
During those 14 months, Vazquez poured in 24 goals across all competitions, earned his place in the MLS All-Star Game in St. Paul, Minnesota, and nearly forced his way into the USMNT's FIFA World Cup roster. He also received a deserved raise and contract extension during that time.
The USMNT goal Jan. 25 seemed to signal there wouldn't be a letdown but what followed could reasonably be described as a mini-slump. Since then, Vazquez made five competitive appearances (including a second USMNT appearance) without a goal from open play.
The lone goal he has of any variety since the USMNT January camp was scored from the penalty spot in preseason against Philadelphia Union on Feb. 10.
How Vazquez plans to bust the slump
Head coach Pat Noonan commented Thursday on the irregularity of this slump. That fact that it was bubbling to the surface in public remarks from Vazquez himself was telling, Noonan said.
"You know, obviously, if he's voicing to you his frustrations, that lets you know that you're seeing and hearing something we haven't seen," Noonan said to The Enquirer.
Everyone at FCC is fighting with Vazquez to get him back on track, if he's even off-track at all. Some might say that's not the case.
Eventually, though, the lofty expectations of Cincinnati in 2023 probably depend on getting Vazquez on the score sheet. Recent history indicates that should happen soon. Ever since Albright arrived to FCC, four matches is Vazquez's longest scoreless streak across all competitions.
"Once the first one rolls in, the floodgates will open," Vazquez said Thursday.
Does he believe that? For the first time since Vazquez truly arrived last season as a star in MLS, that's hard to answer. The answer is still almost certainly "yes," though.
FC Cincinnati has complete confidence Vazquez will find his way again this time.
"Like he said, and like we've mentioned to him, he's doing a lot of good things, the goals will come, he's been in situations to finish off plays in games," Noonan said. "And I can tell you, I'm not concerned, we're not concerned that the goals are going to come. It's just trying to keep him in the right frame of mind and himself staying in the right frame of mind because the opportunities are going to be there. And for the next one to be successful, like you hear about all of the best strikers, you have to forget about the ones that you don't convert on. We need him to do the same things he's been doing, and then finding those chances, which he's been finding, and he'll score goals."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: 'It makes me angry.' FC Cincy's Brandon Vazquez talks goal drought