Victor Vazquez didn't miss a beat when asked about defending against Lionel Messi.
"Messi is unstoppable. He's special," said the veteran Toronto FC attacking midfielder. "Everybody knows that."
Vazquez knows firsthand. The 36-year-old Spaniard rose through the ranks with Messi at FC Barcelona's famed youth system.
The two will cross paths again Wednesday when Toronto takes on Inter Miami CF at DRV Pink Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., although the reunion may have to take place off the pitch. Messi has missed Miami's last two outings with muscle fatigue and there is a question mark over his availability.
Vazquez was 11 when he joined La Masia, Barca’s youth academy. The Class of ’87 youth side — named after the birth year of the players involved — was a special one with Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fabregas and Messi, alongside Vazquez in its under-15 ranks in the 2002-03 season.
Vazquez, who is five months older than Messi, says the Argentine star was already special back then.
"He's playing the same as when he was 15," he said. "Of course he's playing now a different role because we get old and he's not as fast as he was before. But he's smart. He's smart on the field. He knows where he has to stand on the field."
Vazquez doesn't spare himself when it comes to Father Time. The stylish Spaniard has been limited to appearances off the bench since returning to action in mid-August after a 4 1/2-month absence due to a foot injury.
"It's not easy when you're 36 years old to get back with the same rhythm as the other guys," said Vazquez, who nevertheless says he is willing to do whatever he is asked to.
While a knee injury eventually derailed Vazquez’s first-team career with Barca, sending him on a different path, Messi’s star never stopped climbing at the Spanish powerhouse and beyond. He has won seven Ballon d'Or awards as the world's best player and in helping Miami win the Leagues Cup, upped his career title haul to 44.
Messi is just Leo to Vazquez, however.
Vazquez’s son, who lives with his mother in Barcelona, is also named Leo. But Vazquez said he and his ex-wife Andrea just liked the name.
Vazquez says while the Class of ’87 remains in touch, via a WhatsApp chat group, it is mindful of the demands on Messi. But he says he touches base with Messi via the occasional Instagram exchange.
Toronto returned to action on the weekend from the international break, unable to build on the momentum of a 3-1 win over Philadelphia on Aug. 30. TFC, which has not posted back-to-back wins in 40 games in all competitions dating back to August 2022, fell 2-1 Saturday to the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps.
Miami, which has won all three home meetings with Toronto by a combined score of 8-2, is coming off a 5-2 loss in Atlanta that snapped a 12-game unbeaten run in all competitions.
Messi sat out that game and the one before, a 3-2 victory over Sporting Kansas City. Coach Gerardo (Tata) Martino is handling his star carefully, with a busy stretch of games ahead including the Sept. 27 U.S. Open Cup final against Houston.
Messi, who last saw action Sept. 3, has played in 11 games in 45 days since joining Miami in July and travelled to Argentina and Bolivia with the national team earlier this month.
Messi and Spanish star fullback Jordi Alba, who also missed the Atlanta game, took part in training Tuesday with Martino saying both would be evaluated ahead of the date with Toronto.
“They looked good. They've obviously trained," Miami fullback DeAndre Yedlin said Tuesday. "Ultimately only they'll know how exactly they feel, but from what I can see he (Messi) looks good, looks happy and ready to go."
Miami has plenty of other marquee talent these days with Spanish midfielder Sergio Busquets and Ecuador forward Leonardo Campana, who scored twice in Atlanta, among others. And there is Canadian content in Kamal Miller, who has been ever-present in the Miami defence since arriving from CF Montreal in an April trade.
Messi has wasted little time making his mark in North America with 11 goals and eight assists in his 11 outings, eight of which were in Cup play.
As a result, Miami is enjoying an unprecedented run. It is unbeaten in eight straight home games (5-0-3) in all competitions, winning five of the last six (5-0-1). And it has done so in style, scoring at least three goals in four of its last five home matches.
Toronto, meanwhile, is winless in its last 17 road games (0-13-4) in all competitions and has lost its last six by a combined score of 17-1. It has failed to score in the last four away matches and 11 of 17 games during that run.
Its last road win was Aug. 27, 2022, when it beat Charlotte FC 2-0.
Victories have been rare anywhere this season. The win over Philadelphia snapped a 10-game losing streak in all competitions.
Vazquez is in his second stint with TFC, rejoining the team after spending two seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy following stints in Qatar and Belgium.
The attacking midfielder, a former Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year during his post-Barca stint with Club Brugge, had 18 goals and 28 assists in 65 appearances across all competitions for Toronto in 2017 and ’18, coming to MLS after a stint with Mexico's Cruz Azul.
A key cog in the attack, he scored the insurance goal in Toronto’s 2-0 MLS Cup final win over Seattle in 2017 when TFC also won the Supporters’ Shield and the Canadian Championship. He was named to the MLS Best XI after scoring eight goals and adding 16 assists during regular-season play that year.
In January 2019, Vazquez left for Qatar where he played first for Al-Arabi Sports Club and then Umm Salal Sport Club, whose practice facility served as Canada’s training base at last year's World Cup.
He eventually left Qatar for Belgium’s K.A.S. Eupen before rejoining former Toronto coach Greg Vanney with the Galaxy in March 2021.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2023
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press