This story was originally published in New England Soccer Journal. Hartford Athletic supporters can apply the code HA25 at checkout for 25% off either a year-long digital or all-access subscription. Launched in March 2013, New England Soccer Journal covers youth soccer up to the professional ranks across the entire region. Click here for more info and to subscribe.
HARTFORD, Conn. — When the USL Championship season was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic back in March, it was an interesting time in the nascent career of Alfonso Vazquez.
One moment, the 17-year-old forward from Windham, Conn., signs his first professional contract with Hartford Athletic, surrounded by family, friends and television cameras ahead of the 2020 season. Next, he runs and works out at home by himself with the season paused, trying to stay mentally and physically sharp amid a public-health crisis.
Hartford coach Radhi Jaidi kept in touch with players through phone calls and team Zoom meetings — especially Vazquez. Vazquez said those calls from Jaidi “helped a lot to put my mind right.”
Exactly how frequently did Jaidi call Vazquez? “Every day — every day,” Jaidi said.
Jaidi said he covered aspects of psychological, technical and tactical preparation with Vazquez, in addition to nutrition and sleeping habits. Jaidi added that he balanced challenging the youngster with questions and offering support during the surreal start to his fledgling career.
The season has since resumed, and Hartford, which struggled in its debut season, has played measurably better under Jaidi. They clinched a playoff berth with a mix of players that range from a youth World Cup standout to a Premier League loanee to a local product like Vazquez, who made it through an open tryout and a preseason trial.
Vazquez scored a Connecticut state record 149 goals for Windham High School, but when it came to his playing future, staying near home to play at Division III Eastern Connecticut State University was the first option. An open tryout by Hartford in December was also an intriguing idea. It gave Vazquez a chance to play against those who had similar professional soccer aspirations, though many of the players registered for the tryout had at least played college soccer.
Vazquez went to the tryout and made an impression, which earned him an invitation to train with Hartford during its preseason. Vazquez seized the training opportunity with four goals in six preseason matches, which led to Athletic signing him to a professional contract.
It’s the culmination of a journey that saw Vazquez eschew the traditional path to forge his own in the immediate pursuit of a professional career. Beyond high school, Vazquez didn’t play club soccer, and he decided to forego college.
“We saw the opportunity as a club, of course, with the agreement of the ownership, which is in line with our desire to give an opportunity to the youth in the community as a building block, to create that path for Alfonso,” Jaidi said.
Jaidi, who worked as an academy and U-23 coach for Southampton FC of the Premier League before coming to Hartford for the 2020 season, said the lack of an academy setup led to some short-term questions on how to create a professional path for young players. The long-term answer was to sign a player like Vazquez, which immediately started a new first-team avenue.
Signing players is one part of the equation. Developing them is the other, and it’s not a scientific process. There’s a mix of intangibles and variables that determine success or failure in player development.
Jaidi added that Vazquez is “a package of small contributions,” such as his goal-scoring ability and operating calmly in tight spaces like the penalty area. Jaidi said the next step for Vazquez is learning how to make the right decision or movement, which “allows him to express himself in a bigger space.”
“We’ve been working on [decision-making and movement] for the last period with him, and hopefully, through the process, he can showcase that, and he will be ready to impose himself on a weekly basis,” Jaidi said.
Both Jaidi and Vazquez said forward Ever Guzmán and midfielder Danny Barrera have been essential mentors when it comes to learning the subtleties of the professional game.
“Players like Guzmán and Barrera have helped me a lot,” Vazquez said. “I follow what Guzmán does on the field, always watch what he does, and he helps me out in training with better movements. Barrera is good at saying when I am doing bad, ‘to fix it’ and when I do well, he lets me know.”
Vazquez, who turned 18 in June, has enjoyed limited minutes in 2020, but did score a turn-and-smash effort in stoppage time against Loudoun United in August. Vazquez was used to celebrating high school goals, but his maiden professional goal felt like something different.
“Unreal,” Vazquez said. “it was amazing.”
As his first professional season winds down, Vazquez’s thoughts drift toward next season. Flashes of potential earned Vazquez his first contract. The next leap forward is consistent playing time along with continued development.
“I’m just starting to think of what I am going to do next and how I’m going to better myself,” Vazquez said.