"He just wanted to play,” said his father, Franuel, shortly after Cincinnati FC made 18-year-old Frankie the No. 1 pick at the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.
A friend of Franuel’s who coached U-6s in a Southern California Latin league accepted the 3 ½-year Frankie on his team.
“Frankie played soccer all the time,” said Franuel. “You name it. At the park, in the house with friends, family, and of course with mom and dad.”
Franuel and his wife, Norma Garcia, both emigrated from Mexico as children. Both hailed from the southwest Mexican state of Guerrero – but they met in high school in Southern California. They’ve raised their children – Frankie’s little brother is 7 years old – in Santa Ana, an Orange County city of 330,000 whose population is nearly 80% Hispanic.
Where Frankie Amaya grew up is also near one of the most successful mainstream youth clubs -- Pateadores, which had already produced three No. 1 MLS Draft picks. It’s a club that pays attention to the soccer played in the Santa Ana leagues.
Pateadores invited Amaya to guest play for their U-13s at a tournament where he quickly caught the eye of their Development Academy director Teddy Chronopoulos, a former MLS player.
“When he got the ball amazing things happened,” Chronopoulos said. “Very quick. Creative mind. Very technical. I said, ‘Hi, I want you to come play for us.’”
Amaya joined Pateadores and played four years of Development Academy ball.
“He had the ability before he came,” Chronopoulos. “We just gave him a bigger platform to showcase his skills, provided all the resources as a club, and he's taken advantage of it. He did a lot of futsal when he was younger. A lot of lower division Mexican leagues and pickup ball. And he really wasn't in a structured environment until he came to us at age 14.”
A year ago, no one would have predicted that Amaya would be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. But it became almost a fait accompli after he shone for the USA in its Concacaf U-20 Championship win in November. He had a particularly good midfield performance in the 2-0 final win over Mexico.
That performance came within a year of Amaya’s first invitation from the U.S. national team program.
“He'd been at [U.S. Soccer] Training Centers for the last three or four years, but nothing really came of it,” Chronopoulos said. “People were worried about his size. I told him to keep sticking with it and good things will happen.”
Late last year, as the 5-foot-4 Amaya was starring for the Pateadores DA team and getting recruited by UCLA, among many others, Chronopoulos called U.S. U-19 national team coach Dave van den Bergh:
“I said, 'You've got to get this kid into camp. He deserves to be there.' And he brought him. Dave and I are good colleagues. I said, just bring him in one time. If he doesn't do well, that's on him. He came in and Tab Ramos saw him, and kept him three more days to train with the U-20s.”
Ramos kept calling Amaya back, through the Concacaf Championship that qualified the USA for next May’s U-20 World Cup.
"Frankie is very comfortable on the ball under any amount of pressure and in any area of the field,” said Ramos. “He makes plays in the final third, can get to full speed in three steps and is a relentless worker."
For UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo, Amaya is one of the many talents he’s recruited that are so good they leave college early to go pro. Longtime MLS coach Dominic Kinnear, now an LA Galaxy assistant coach, once joked to Salcedo that MLS stood for M-e L-eaving S-alcedo.
Salcedo does not begrudge at all Amaya’s early move to the pros.
“I am extremely happy and proud of Frankie,” Salcedo said. “What an incredible story and inspiration for his community in Santa Ana.
“Frankie is a phenomenal talent and an even better young man. He will give everything, everyday to FC Cincinnati. While his time was short at UCLA, I am convinced it was the precise experience he needed to excel with the U-20s at the Concacaf World Cup qualification tournament.
“His performances and in particular the final vs. Mexico showcased the huge upside Frankie has as a professional player. I wish him the best and all the success in the world.”
Amaya, in his first big encounter with media after he came down from the SuperDraft stage, was asked about his Pateadores experience by a Southern Californian reporter:
“The coaching staff is very good. I was there since my freshman year in high school. Four years there. It got me to the next step, to UCLA. And UCLA got me here.”
Amaya grew up watching lots of Mexican League soccer, and became a Club America fan like his dad. Then started watching MLS games. But his role model -- and he named only one -- is Andres Iniesta.
Iniesta, the brilliant, highly technical, energetic former Barcelona midfielder -- is also notable for being below average height.
Chronopoulos isn’t concerned that Amaya’s size will prevent him from making it in MLS:
“He’s street smart. He's unpredictable with the ball. He's very good in possession. He doesn't lose the ball very often. He's very deceptive. He's got a lot of good qualities on the technical side and he's very smart tactically."
When Amaya joined Pateadores, he wanted to play as a defensive midfielder (a No. 6). Perhaps he was drawn to defensive play because his father was an outside back in his playing days -- “Frankie liked to play defense when he was little, then somehow he became an attacker,” said Franuel.
Chronopoulos responded to Amaya's request to play defensively with: “With your ability, you can break down defenders, you really need to think about being a 10.”
Now Chronopoulos believes Amaya is a combination of No. 10 attacking midfielder and a box-to-box No. 8, because he has such impressive endurance.
“We'll see where I play [with Cincinnati],” said Amaya. “First of all, I’ve to got to work hard and fit in. Wherever [Coach Alan Koch] wants me to play, I'll be happy to play.”
A half hour after Amaya was selected as the No. 1 pick in the giant ballroom at the Chicago convention center, someone complimented him on his brief speech.
“Thanks. I could have said even more,” Amaya said.
“My parents sacrificed coming from Mexico. It was a hard journey for them. Thankfully, I was born in the U.S. and it has been easier for me than it was for them, so I'm thankful for them. For helping me get to where I am and making my life so much easier. They sacrificed a lot for me. I can't thank them enough and I never want to let them down and I think I made a good step forward.”