The first four games of the 2022 New York Red Bulls season have had a handful of encouraging signs to build on, including and perhaps most notably the reemergence of Frankie Amaya.
Arriving early in the 2021 campaign via a trade with FC Cincinnati, the former first overall SuperDraft pick generally struggled for form throughout 2021 as most New York Red Bulls players did in what could only be described as a grind of a season. He was in and out of the match day squads, and it never seemed like he had found his stride between playing in a deep-lying role in midfield or one where he was closer to the forwards. Yet, after starting all of the Red Bulls’ first four games to start 2022, Amaya has seemingly transcended from a squad player to one who is arguably the heartbeat to his team’s style of play.
“Frankie made the necessary step in the preseason… his mindset is different,” Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber said earlier this month after the team’s win over the San Jose Earthquakes. “He understands more and more about what’s going on in the Red Bull world. He’s a starter player... he’s a high-value player on this team.”
The 21-year-old midfielder has had an uptick in output on both sides of the ball as he leads MLS in tackles with 14 and is tied for most assists at three, with those three assists already surpassing his two total goal contributions in 2021. He leads most defensive metrics among his Red Bulls teammates, and his quality in transition attacks puts him within the top three of most passing and chance-creating metrics as well.
This two-way mobility was strikingly absent from the Red Bulls’ central midfielders last season with Sean Davis lacking the guile to join the attack, Dru Yearwood not being the cleanest dribbler through the center of the field, and Cristian Cásseres Jr. lacking consistency on either side of the ball. Caden Clark is probably the only other player in the squad that possesses this skill set, but he is yet to return to his best form in that role since his appendectomy in 2021.
Amaya’s assist to Omir Fernandez’s goal against the San Jose Earthquakes demonstrates his recognition of when to press and when to attempt the unorthodox pass. Amaya steps in to win possession and springs forward to take advantage of a disjointed defensive shape.
Amaya spent a large portion of his developmental years playing as a No. 10, and that’s evident in these moments of creativity. The chipped pass into Fernandez puts him in a good position to beat his man and create enough space to get a shot off that results in the Red Bulls’ second goal.
Here he is again reading the situation to intercept a loose pass toward Artur and push the Red Bulls forward in transition. Three players commit to close down Amaya’s run, which opens Dylan Nealis to receive a pass down the channel.
Even under pressure, Amaya is incredibly efficient at keeping New York’s forward momentum going on the dribble or with a progressive pass. He is second in the team for passes made under pressure at 30, and his low center of gravity and quick feet in possession make him a difficult player to tackle off the ball without committing a foul or missing the challenge completely.
In this play against Minnesota, Amaya evaded two challenges on the dribble. He throws off Emanuel Reynoso with a slight body feint before cutting onto his right foot, and then he skips by Wil Trapp with another slight movement before cutting inside.
Hassani Dotson is the third player in this sequence to commit toward Amaya, but the danger of doing so is leaving a potential lane for Amaya to slip the ball past him and into Fernandez.
The build-up play leading to the Red Bulls’ first goal against Toronto involved a culmination of Amaya’s defensive and offensive skill sets. He presses Jonathan Osorio into a mistake and smoothly receives a difficult pass under pressure before darting forward. As he narrows his run toward goal, he pulls Michael Bradley out of position and forces Toronto to collapse centrally.
Lewis Morgan is left unmarked at the top of the box with Osorio and Bradley out of position, and Toronto collapsing opens Klimala to receive the ball out wide.
His refined defensive urgency has been crucial to the Red Bulls maintaining a sense of organized chaos during their press. Amaya ranks in the 99th percentile for interceptions made per 90 and the 92nd percentile for pressures made per 90 among central midfielders in MLS. He reads the game well to take up favorable pressing positions to press or in passing lanes, and those qualities have helped the Red Bulls silence some of the league’s best creative players.
Lucas Zelarayan recorded his lowest number of touches in a game this season with just 55 at Red Bull Arena while both Alejandro Pozuelo and Reynoso struggled to get a foothold in their games against the Red Bulls. The play below shows Amaya sprinting toward his penalty box to close down Zelarayan before he can shift the ball onto his left foot for a shot or cross into the box. John Tolkin and Yearwood are then able to hold possession and quickly initiate a passing sequence away from danger and out of their defensive third.
This clip from the Minnesota game shows Amaya’s commitment to sticking with Reynoso despite him taking up space down the left half-space. The Argentine playmaker had more touches than Zelarayan during this fixture, but he struggled to find the pockets of space he needed to grab hold of the game because of Amaya’s relentless pressure.
Outside of live ball actions, Amaya has also developed into a reliable set piece taker from both corners and free kicks. An early free kick he delivered into the Crew’s box nearly led to a goal from Tom Edwards, a corner kick against San Jose set Sean Nealis up for a point-blank shot on net, and he provided the assists to Aaron Long’s goal against Toronto from a free kick. Outside of a handful of players in the squad, the Red Bulls don’t have many targets to aim for off set pieces, but Amaya and Morgan have shown they have the set piece taking quality to at least put the ball in dangerous areas to potentially force a goal over the line.
The Red Bulls now have a two-week break until they travel to Foxborough for a date with the New England Revolution. Amaya and the Bulls will face their biggest challenge of the season at Gillette Stadium after the Red Bulls lost all three meetings against season’s Supporters’ Shield winners and Amaya will likely be tasked with shutting down 2021 MVP Carles Gil. It should serve as a good barometer for the team’s ability to maintain consistency, especially considering how they plummeted in form following a promising start to the 2021 season.
And, most importantly, it’ll provide further data points to assess whether this is the version of Frankie Amaya the Red Bulls can expect to see week in and week out, or if there is work yet to be done on building him up to a consistently reliable performer in midfield.