Difference-makers: the kinds of players who make a good team great. Back in 2016, Toronto FC had plenty of them: Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley were 3 of the highest-profile (and highest paid) players on Toronto FC, who truly lived up to the ‘difference-maker title’. After making it so far in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, Toronto FC’s front office realized they needed just a few more pieces to make their already great team truly dominant in MLS. So they went into the off-season looking for 1-2 more ‘difference-makers’, to ensure that they would bring a championship home in 2017.
The first was more of a lower-profile signing, who would become a real difference-maker for Toronto FC as the season progressed. This signing was French/Congolese centre-back Chris Mavinga, a pacey defender who arrived from Russian side, Rubin Kazan. The second was a 30-year-old talented attacking midfielder that was struggling in Mexico with Cruz Azul: his name was Víctor Vázquez. Toronto had previously tried to sign him as a designated player when they were hunting for one back in 2015 but ultimately signed Sebastian Giovinco instead.
The signing of Vázquez was to fix one simple yet challenging problem: find an attacking midfielder who could consistently create plays for the offence, developing a more dynamic attack. Kind of similar to the role Alejandro Pozuelo performs today, just Vázquez was a little older (with less athleticism) and getting paid less than a million dollars a year.
Víctor had a well-established and long-lasting career by the time he made it to Toronto, which is expected for a midfielder in his early 30s. He was part of FC Barcelona’s class of ‘87 at La Masia academy, playing alongside Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas — viewed by some of his teammates as the best of the bunch. As he slowly progressed through Barcelona’s youth ranks, he was able to make his debut on April 12th, 2008 as a substitute against Recreativo de Huelva. He would make a few more appearances after that, most notably scoring his first goal against Rubin Kazan in the Champions League group stage in 2010. But after a 14-month period without playing professional football due to injury (which occurred in 2009), Vázquez lost his chance to make it into the first team. This is when he decided to move on to Club Brugge of Belgium in 2011.
Víctor’s years in Belgium were prolific. He was able to perform so well for the team that he became nicknamed “El Mago” (The Magician) and was named the Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year in the 2014-15 season as his team finished second in the top-flight (he also won a Belgian Cup with them). He then moved on to play for Cruz Azul to have a new challenge and higher pay but didn’t enjoy the place for varying reasons, making him request to move after only one season. That’s when he signed for Toronto FC in 2017.
Toronto FC had just come off a heart-wrenching loss in the MLS Cup Final to Seattle Sounders and were determined to improve so they could win the championship in 2017. The core of the team remained, so additions like Vázquez and Mavinga made TFC favourites to win the league that season. The team started slowly, only winning 1 game in their first 6 (they got 1 win, 4 ties, and 1 loss), but Víctor Vázquez was able to start picking up some form, providing his first goal against Vancouver Whitecaps on March 18th, 2017.
After a little while in red, Vázquez proved that he was the missing piece that Toronto needed. What he provided was a go-to set-up man who would put in crucial passes to set up goal-scoring attacks. And for that task, he was absolutely amazing. Sometimes he wasn’t even in a remotely close position to the net but would pinpoint a lob pass directly to the feet of Giovinco in motion so that he could score. Altidore and Giovinco were the heroes who were credited for all the goals, but Vázquez was behind many of the goals Toronto FC scored. Even just a year before his signing, Toronto FC lacked creativity at times to produce the attacking plays that they needed in their worst games, and he was the guy who turned those poor-offensive games into victories.
Having players like Vázquez takes a load off your team’s shoulders. Players can rest at ease that there will always be a player like him to put in the key passes that are needed, which frees other players to perform their responsibilities more effectively. Michael Bradley was able to play even more of a defensive role in the midfield (in stark contrast to the way he was playing back in 2014 — much more attacking-minded) which allowed him to manage the passing plays at the back while Vázquez would pull the strings at the front. Víctor Vázquez was the most intelligent playmaker in Toronto FC history, and possibly MLS history. That’s how high-quality his performances were while playing for the Reds.
With these performances, Vázquez was able to finish second in the assists charts, getting 16 of them, and scoring 8 goals himself. For someone who likes to assist goals more than scoring, this was an amazing season for him as he had an abundance of both statistics. Given that he played 2382 regular-season minutes, he got a goal or an assist every 99 minutes in the regular season.
In the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, he got 2 goals and an assist. The assist was to Jozy Altidore in the Eastern Conference Championships versus Columbus, which allowed Toronto FC to go to the MLS Cup Final for the second year in a row. The second goal was in extra time of the MLS Cup Final, Vázquez tapping in a rebound to win Toronto FC the 2017 MLS Cup. He held up his jersey on the chilly December night in celebration as the fans in the stadium roared in celebration. It was a truly special night for him and Toronto, to which he had cemented himself in Toronto FC history.
In 2018, he was able to continue with his great form, helping to take TFC to the CONCACAF Champions League Final, only to lose on penalties. He would get 8 goals and 9 assists in 21 games that season, continuing to perform well when healthy in a disappointing season for the Reds. It looked like he would be in Toronto for years to come given signing a new contract early in the season.
That didn’t pan out. On January 15th, 2019 — less than 2 years after he signed, he was sold to the Qatari club Al-Arabi for a price greater than $500 000 (MLS transfers often have less information on transfer fees). An offer was extended to Vázquez in the off-season, but he wanted to leave for this opportunity. Given the quality of soccer in the Middle East, it was clear this was mainly due to financial reasons (which TFC could not provide anyways due to roster regulations), as he said himself in an interview on the Footy Talks podcast featuring Kristian Jack, Steven Caldwell, and Luke Wileman.
“Only two times I thought about money in my career. From Brugge to Mexico — a mistake. And from Toronto to Qatar — another mistake,” Vázquez stated.
I think that sums up his time in Qatar. He played first for Al-Arabi and then transferred to Umm Salal, but clearly wanted a change when he decided to return to the Belgian top-flight to play for Eupen. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out there as he terminated his contract due to personal reasons just 2 months into his 2-year contract in 2020.
He then returned to MLS (on a $440 000 USD contract) to play under former TFC manager Greg Vanney, with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Originally viewed as more of an ageing player who would help train up some of the youth, he has played a more pivotal role than I expected, scoring 3 goals and getting 6 assists in 28 appearances. He recently had his option declined after 1 season back in MLS, but could return to the Galaxy as he is one of the players they’re still “in discussions” with for the 2022 season.
Víctor Vázquez was never truly given the credit that he deserved. As many midfielders are, he was overshadowed by the star strikers of the team despite the great contributions he provided. Going back to the idea of ‘difference-makers’, if Vázquez had not been that difference-maker for Toronto in 2017, they would’ve had a much harder shot at winning both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. They were a great team before him but sometimes struggled to create coherent attacks in certain games which Vázquez fixed as soon as he got into form. Vázquez was the player who unlocked the true potential of both Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, something that hasn’t been seen since the MLS Cup-winning season. It was a glory to watch his beautiful playing style, and I am grateful that I got to witness one of the best attacks in MLS history, managed by his attacking mastery and vision. What a player he was.