Frankie Amaya entered his rookie season just waiting to make his MLS debut and to build off that experience.
Now four games into his sophomore campaign, the teenager from Santa Ana, Calif. has become a key player in FC Cincinnati’s three-man midfield.
He was the bright spot in the team’s disappointing MLS is Back Tournament opener, and the man of the match in the win over Atlanta United FC on Thursday morning.
If you ask Amaya what he thinks about his rapid trajectory, he won’t say much.
While he was proud of his first professional goal – a left-footed strike from long range that beat the U.S. Men’s National Team’s goalkeeper – he was more excited that his team won.
But if you ask those around him, they’ll paint a much more vivid picture.
“I’ve already said it, after the first game, he was already one of the best players on the pitch for us,” head coach Jaap Stam said Thursday morning. “Today, he was very decisive for us as well in scoring his first goal. He’s got the ability to improve a lot more. He’s already doing that.”
Before FCC’s tournament debut, Amaya said he spent the league suspension getting stronger and fitter. It’s showing.
Through the team’s first two matches in Group E, the 19-year-old has played the most minutes of any midfielder – he played a full 90 on Thursday but was subbed in stoppage time.
Against Columbus Crew SC, he completed 56 of his 58 attempted passes with a 96.6% accuracy. He also had a team-high four tackles won.
He followed that performance with a goal against Atlanta and a 94.4% passing accuracy (51 of 53 passes were competed.) More significantly, he had an 88.9% passing accuracy in ATLUTD’s territory.
The MLS is Back Tournament is an opportunity for Cincinnati to become more comfortable playing under Stam, who arrived in the U.S. a month ago. But it’s also a chance for players to shine in the World Cup-style tournament and capitalize on playing matches in the national spotlight.
“Frankie’s a very good player,” Stam said. “It’s not about age because everywhere in the world, there are a lot of experienced soccer players by looking at their age, but they don’t have the quality of Frankie Amaya. You’re always looking at the ability of a player that can make a difference, that can feel comfortable in your way of playing and your philosophy. That’s (Frankie’s) game.”
Amaya likely would’ve played in last summer’s Under-20 FIFA World Cup for the U.S. had he been given more minutes for the Orange and Blue earlier in the 2019 MLS season. But with a crowded, experienced midfield, the first pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft was sent on loan to Orange County SC in the USL Championship.
The midfielder’s loan stint was brief, and when he returned, he became a fixture in interim head coach Yoann Damet’s 4-3-3.
While Amaya had a promising rookie season, it was clear he wanted to improve in the final third, in addition to building on his overall awareness, vision and defensive duties.
By the time FCC were playing closed-door friendlies at IMG Academy, Amaya’s scoring ability became one of the team’s best attacking assets – like against Atlanta on Thursday.
But he’s also grown in his ability to read the game and make quick decisions. That would explain his passing stats, and this play against Atlanta from March.
“My role is very big defensively, but offensively, too,” Amaya said on Thursday. “Today, I showed that I can be a more offensive player, but I could also track back and help the center back and the left back. I think I play a big role in this team.”
There’s a phrase around MLS called “Play Your Kids.” It’s self-explanatory: Offer opportunities to younger players, who can develop at a faster rate to benefit a club (or the national team) in the long term
The MLS is Back Tournament has served as a platform for some of the league’s best young players. Toronto FC’s Ayo Akinola is the current favorite for tournament MVP with five goals in two games, while Brenden Aaronson is transforming the Philadelphia Union from an Eastern Conference dark horse to a front runner. Akinola is 20, while Aaronson is 19.
Amaya’s first two games of the tournament should draw similar attention.
Like Stam said, age means nothing when there’s a player with quality. In previous seasons, the “age means nothing” mantra applied to older, seasoned players. Not anymore.
Amaya might be FC Cincinnati’s youngest player, but he’s emerged as the team’s MVP since Stam arrived.