Stejskal: How 16-year-old Gianluca Busio is breaking through with SKC

It was an important milestone in what he hopes will be a long, successful career, but Gianluca Busio’s first professional goal was far from pretty.

In fact, he scuffed his 94th minute tap-in in Sporting KC’s 4-1 win at the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday. Not that the 16-year-old attacking midfielder was worried about that after the fact.

“When the ball was coming across, I was thinking that this could be it,” Busio told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Thursday. “Everything was going through my head; all the happiness, all my family. Then I put it in and I couldn’t believe I actually scored a professional goal. It was just a great feeling.”

He’ll remember it for the rest of his life but, aside from the milestone, the goal wasn’t particularly noteworthy. It certainly wasn’t a demonstration of what makes Busio one of the top prospects in American soccer. For that, we need to go back 15 minutes, to a pass that wasn’t even completed.

With the match tied 1-1 in the 79th minute, Busio, who came on in the 63rd, stationed himself with his back to goal in a small pocket of space just outside the top of the box. Roger Espinoza found him, but his pass was elevated. It left Busio in a difficult position. The conventional play would’ve been to try to bring the ball down and keep possession, but Busio instead played it directly out of the air, flicking the ball over his left shoulder and toward goal. If not for an important interception by Whitecaps center back Aaron Maund, the pass would’ve put SKC striker Khiry Shelton in for a one-on-one opportunity.

It didn’t quite come off, but the play, which was reminiscent of Busio’s assist in Kansas City’s 1-0 win at Houston in August, showed the smarts, technical ability and confidence that have SKC head coach Peter Vermes raving about his talented teenager.

“He has a real attacking mind,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com. “He positions himself well between the lines, he knows where he wants to go with the ball, he’s calm in tough situations. If you remember his first assist, we played against [Houston] and… a ball got played into him and he played it first-time, sort of half turned in behind the defender, and then [Diego] Rubio tucked the ball in the back of the net. He almost did the same thing last night with Shelton. He just has a mind that other players don’t. Most don’t think or attempt or see that, and that piece is now starting to come to the forefront. It’s really good. It’s really good to see.”

He’s shown exciting flashes, but it’s important to note that Busio is still nowhere near a finished product. He’s played just 163 minutes in seven career MLS appearances, only one of which was a start. It’s clear that he’s skilled, but the United States youth international still has plenty of work to do before he even becomes a regular with SKC. Tagging him as a surefire future star would be premature and presumptive.

Listen to Vermes, however, and you get the sense that might not be the case much longer.

From the moment he left his family in Greensboro, North Carolina to join the SKC academy at 14 in the summer of 2016, Busio, who also considered joining the Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union youth setups, has outpaced all expectations.

Last August, after just one year in the academy, he became the second-youngest signing in MLS history when he inked a Homegrown deal. Vermes and SKC initially planned for him to spend most of this year with their USL team, Swope Park Rangers. That instinct was driven home early in preseason, when the 5-foot-7, 135-pound Busio was physically dominated in an exhibition match against another MLS team. That game could’ve been a blow to his confidence. Instead, Busio used it as a wakeup call. He knows he should become faster and stronger as he gets older, but he realized he’d be at a physical disadvantage throughout 2018. If he wanted to play this year, he’d have to compensate with his feet and mind.

“Playing with guys that are a lot older and physically bigger and stronger than you, you’ve got to try to keep up with them with your foot skills and moving the ball and all that,” he said. “That’s part of my game that I don’t feel behind on. Physically, they’ll have the advantage on me, but if I’m better with my feet and I’m quicker, then it’s not going to make a difference. I want to make sure I improve on making sure every touch is clean, every pass is to the correct foot, everything like that. That’s part of my game where I can clearly excel and be better and I don’t have to worry about being the biggest or strongest.”

He started the season primarily with Swope Park, but his continued improvement and a run of injuries for SKC prompted Vermes to scrap his plan of stashing him in USL. Busio made his first MLS gameday roster on May 27. He’s remained there for 14 of second-place SKC’s subsequent 19 MLS matches, including each of their last 12. All signs point to him being a significant option for the club’s final two regular season matches at first-place FC Dallas on Sunday and against third-place LAFC on Oct. 28, as well as in the playoffs.

According to Vermes, Busio’s maturity has been what’s kept him in the squad. Unlike many young pros he’s dealt with in the past, Vermes said that Busio isn’t subservient to his older teammates on the field. He’s not worried about feeding Espinoza or Graham Zusi if they’re loudly calling for the ball. He’s only committed to making what he believes to be the right play.

“He has the utmost respect of his teammates, and a lot of those guys have been around for a long time,” said Vermes.  “It’s amazing. A lot of the guys spend time with him because they know that he listens and he tries to absorb as much as he possibly can, but at the same time he goes out and he has the confidence to try to do those things.

“He’s just such a mature kid that I forget sometimes that he’s 16-years-old. In a very short amount of time, in one season in MLS really, his adaptation has honestly been incredible…. He’s gotten this opportunity and he has not just sat back and said, ‘OK, I’ve made it. Now I’m here.’ He continues to work really, really hard, he understands his place in the team and is always prepared every time we call on him. That’s a great quality to have because not all players have that.”

If he continues to progress, that mindset will no doubt serve Busio well in the future. Just what that future will entail, of course, remains to be seen. He does hold Italian citizenship through his father. That’d smooth his path to a European club, several of whom showed interest before he signed with SKC. Busio didn’t think he was ready to head across the Atlantic then, but he did say joining a European club is an eventual career goal. For his part, Vermes acknowledged that SKC could one day sell him, whose contract runs through 2020 with team options for 2021 and 2022.

But all that’s off in the distance. Until then, Busio, Vermes and SKC will continue trying to transform the talented teen from a hot prospect into a full-blown, productive pro.

“I think he’s one of those players that has the ability to be special,” said Vermes. “He’s in one of those positions that are hard to develop: attacking No. 10. He’s a guy that can give the final pass, can score a goal, can make the goal on his own with a pass, can make a goal on his own with his own dribble or what have you. I really think the sky’s the limit. The kid just has great qualities.”

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