Amaya: Becoming the face of a franchise

Frankie Amaya entered 2019 hoping to make an impression. Initially, that meant earning opportunities and climbing the depth chart.

The lasting impression from Amaya’s rookie season, however, is that he’s one of FC Cincinnati’s most important players and a cornerstone upon which the club will build around in 2020 and beyond.

He still may be “just a kid from Santa Ana,” but now the teenager personifies the team’s development and potential.

Picked first in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, the center midfielder began the season amongst a crowded midfield filled with experienced veterans. Considered an asset for the future, his role was initially reduced to fighting for a place in the matchday squad. His eventual debut came five games into the season and lasted 14 minutes.

But once he made his first start May 4, he became a mainstay in the starting lineup and a player the Orange and Blue will build around.

In his rookie season, which included a brief loan spell at Orange County SC, Amaya made 19 MLS appearances and 15 starts, playing 1,241 minutes. He finished fourth in MLS’ rookie of the year voting.

“I think it was a good first season for me,” Amaya said. “It wasn’t the best for the team, but we just keep our head high and keep on playing. I thought it was a good experience playing like 19 games. I thought it really helped me improve during the expansion season.”

As GM Gerard Nijkamp said in September – in similar sentiments he echoed about Allan Cruz – “Frankie Amaya is also our future.”

So, how did all of this happen so quickly?

Simply put: Frankie Amaya is very good, and only getting better.

The first impression FCC fans got of Amaya was that another team was trying to trade for him on draft day. That team, LAFC, just posted the best regular season in MLS history. Consider that a sign.

While Cincinnati was on the clock with the first pick at the SuperDraft, LAFC GM John Thorrington walked dramatically across the draft floor to discuss a potential trade in person after trading texts with Jeff Berding, then FCC’s General Manager. Cincinnati declined. The amount LAFC offered was too low, and instead of Amaya going to a club a mere 30 miles from home, he joined one in a city he only knew because of the Bengals.

But once he arrived in the Queen City, his talent was apparent.

The 5-foot-4 midfielder has gifted ball control, passing technique and vision. At his best, Amaya serves as the conductor to any piece of Cincinnati’s attacking play. Defensively, he’s just as consistent – winning tackles and cutting off angles to stifle an opponent’s possession.

In his rookie season, his passing accuracy (86.6%) was noticeably higher than the team average (78.1%). Additionally, he won 70.5% of his tackles, while the club average was 62.9%.

There’s a reason he’s so important to FC Cincinnati’s future: Amaya can do what others can’t. And his age gives him a significantly higher ceiling.

While that might be the postseason assessment, it wasn’t a preseason consideration.

Because of the laden midfield group, the club’s youngest player was sidelined for others either entering or already in the prime of their careers. So he drew less game experience near the start of the season.

That lack of experience not only kept him absent from FCC’s starting lineup, but the U.S. Under-20 National Team at the 2020 FIFA Under-20 World Cup entirely.

Twenty-four hours after being drafted, Amaya was already back training with the Under-20’s in their January camp. It was one of the last opportunities to impress coaches ahead of the World Cup in May. Starting games regularly – as one of the youngest players in the pool – experts suggested he’d join the U.S. in Poland.

But those prognostications evaporated as the teenager couldn’t break into the FCC lineup. A short-term loan stint in Orange County provided playing time, but ultimately wasn’t enough.

When the U.S. roster was announced on May 10, Amaya’s name was absent. Later, former U-20 head coach Tab Ramos said the midfielder was one of the hardest roster cuts.

“He’s such a great player, he’s so easy on the ball,” Ramos said at the time. “There’s such few of those in the league in general, and, in particular, (that are) Americans. It made a lot of things more difficult because I really wasn’t sure where Frankie was going in the first two months of the season. That sort of made me a little bit biased towards someone else that had been playing.”

The exclusion left Amaya devastated.

After being drafted, his involvement in the national team seemed more likely than his involvement in Cincinnati’s 2019 plans. But with no mid-season World Cup and MLS minutes scarce, it was a difficult time for the rookie.

“It was pretty painful hearing that news,” Amaya said. “But you just have to move on from it like everything else. It was adversity for me, but I moved on from it and just looked forward to the next game. I kept on working toward that and I put it in my head that I’m going to do my best in this league.”

What Cincinnati supporters saw the rest of 2019 is what Ramos saw from the start.

The first game following the World Cup snub was May 11 – conveniently the day when everything changed for the club.

For Amaya, he made his first start at Nippert Stadium. It was a chance for him to prove himself. On the sideline, interim coach Yoann Damet was doing the same in his first match leading the club.

Consider that 2-1 win against the Montreal Impact the source of Amaya’s emergence and FC Cincinnati’s future. 

By halftime, the Orange and Blue led 1-0 and had completed 401 passes. At the time, the team averaged 400.5 passes per game.

Damet’s appointment and Amaya’s insertion into the starting XI ushered in a possession-based style that emphasized fluid movement, crisp passing and creativity – all attributes Amaya already possessed. His growth and development jumped to the forefront of team plans, and the midfielder started nine of the next 11 league matches.

It was then when the rookie showed his true potential and versatility.

At times, Amaya lined up as the lone attacking mid in an advanced role in front of two – more defensive – pivots. Other instances saw him play alongside another attacker while one center mid dropped back into a holding role.

Regardless of a specific match’s tactics, Amaya went from outside the lineup to a default starting option with whom others were tried to see which combination was best.  

Entering 2020, part of that combination seems to be Amaya beside Cruz, the club’s 2019 MVP and leading goal scorer. Behind them, Leo Bertone sat deeper toward the end of 2019, but other options include Fatai Alashe, Caleb Stanko and Tommy McCabe.

As the new season approaches, instead of Amaya hoping to fill vacant roles, now players are fighting to play around Amaya. And considering he’s only 19 and Cruz is 23, FC Cincinnati have a young midfield core to build around. Speaking to last month, Nijkamp said that’s an offseason priority.

“Frankie Amaya got a lot of experience to show his potential,” Nijkamp said. “Hopefully next season with some better players around him, he’ll make the next step in his career.”

Amaya’s 2019 development is an example of why FCC want to invest in younger players.

Despite the impressive season, there’s plenty of room for Amaya to improve. As attacking player, next year could lead to more offensive productivity – through goals and assist. His 25 chances created led to 9.2% of all Cincinnati’s scoring opportunities. That number should rise significantly in his second MLS season.

In short: if the club is successful in 2020, Amaya will have a significant role in that success.

“I’m just going to keep on doing my thing,” he said. “If the responsibility is on me, then I gladly accept it because I’ve never been shy away from anything. If it’s on me, it’s on me.”

Since being taken No. 1 overall, there has been anxious anticipation and high expectations heaped on Amaya. That’s what comes with being the first pick in the draft.

But after spending early portions of 2019 waiting for his opportunity, not getting his shot with FCC led to missing out on the Under-20 World Cup. Once he got the chance, though, FC Cincinnati unearthed one of their best players and someone whom they plan to build the franchise around.

Now, his opportunity is to become the face of a young franchise, and it sounds like he’s ready for the responsibility.