Frankie Amaya took a deep breath as the seconds ticked away before the first selection of the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. He knew there was a good chance he could be the first player chosen, but he wasn't taking anything for granted. He watched the countdown, nerves building up, and just when he thought the agony would be stopped by the sound of his name being announced, FC Cincinnati called a timeout.
"It was the longest four minutes of my life," Amaya told Goal as he recalled the roller coaster of emotions that peaked with him eventually being taken as the first player in Friday's draft in Chicago.
Amaya has enjoyed a rapid rise in recent months. He has quickly gone from a respected, but not highly recruited youth player, to U.S. Under-20 national team player, to professional. Along the way he started in a Concacaf final, and now he can call himself a top draft pick. Not bad for a player few outside of Southern California had heard of just six months ago, a player who wore the same suit on draft day that he wore to his high school prom just eight months ago.
In the fall, Amaya was a freshman at UCLA, and he began his college career with an injury. He eventually recovered well enough to earn a call-up for the Concacaf U-20 championship in November, but he was still catching up to the rest of the group, which included several pro players.
Amaya didn't start in the group stage of the tournament, but eventually he won over U.S. coach Tab Ramos with his skill and tenacity. The teenager earned a starting role in the knockout rounds, and put in an outstanding performance in the USA's 2-0 victory against Mexico in the final.
"[Amaya] has excellent control of the ball under any circumstance," Ramos told Goal. "And then he has a good change of pace to get away from a defender and then can make the good pass with good timing. He makes a really good effort defensively too, and he doesn't get enough credit for that. I think he has all the qualities to be a great player."
Amaya admits that the experience of beating Mexico in the Concacaf U-20 final helped instill a new level of confidence in him, one he feels will help him make the transition to the pro level.
"That game meant the world to me honestly because I wasn't really the best player on that team," Amaya said. "I worked really hard during the camp to earn my spot and I just want to thank Tab for giving me the chance to showcase my skills on a team with mostly pros.
"A final you always have to play your best game," Amaya said of his showing against Mexico. "My family is Mexican-American so it gave me a little more motivation. They were all wearing U.S. shirts back home and I didn't want to let them down. Especially with Thanksgiving coming up. I didn't want to go home a loser."
Not only did Amaya go home from that tournament a champion, he also thrust his name squarely into the conversation for a Generation Adidas contract, and MLS came calling soon after. During that time, FC Cincinnati had already begun to scout him as a potential draft target.
"He's a fighter. He's not the biggest guy on he field, but he has that fighting spirit and you can tell he has a desire to get better," FC Cincinnati technical director Luke Sassano told Goal. "He has that commitment mentally and he's getting better and better."
"A lot of people think that I can't play defense but I'm just a work machine," Amaya said. "People are more talented than me, but I don't think anyone on the field is going to work harder than me, offensively and defensively. I like to get in tackles and stuff like that even though I'm a small player. I like to challenge every ball."
Now Amaya will face the challenge of fighting for playing time in the professional ranks. FC Cincinnati knows it must take its time with him, but Ramos believes Amaya is already good enough to see playing time in the pros.
"Sometimes we invest in some South American players that come who are young but take a little while,' Ramos said. "(Ezequiel) Barco is an example. Those guys cost a lot of money and I think we have guys like Frankie that I think, for me, are every bit as good. They just need an opportunity."
Ramos gave Amaya that opportunity in November and Amaya made the most of it. Now, Amaya is eager to get his pro career going. He believes he has the ability to succeed, even if he admits his rapid rise in recent months is more than he could ever have expected.
"I'm not going to lie, I didn't see this coming," Amaya said. "I worked hard my whole life. I knew something would happen, but I didn't know all this would happen so fast.
"It's all hard work, and now I just want to start playing. Being a pro is something I've always dreamed about and I'm ready to give it my all."