Meet Gianluca Busio, Sporting KC's 15-year-old American phenom
Darren Powell has made a career out of recognizing soccer talent, and he knew there was something special about Gianluca Busio when he first saw him — even if Busio was just five years old at the time.
“Even as a five-year-old, he stood out on the field with exceptional technical ability,” says Powell, now head coach of USL’s San Antonio FC. “He had the ability to run with a soccer ball with coordination and balance. It’s just looked very natural.”
Powell, whose son once played alongside Busio, was among the people completely unsurprised on August 24 when Busio, a quick, creative and versatile forward, became the second-youngest player ever to sign an MLS contract, at 15 years and 89 days old. His signing came on the heels of a five-goals-in-five-games performance with the U.S. U-15 national team at the CONCACAF Championships earlier this month.
As he got older, in each environment he was the top player … everywhere he goes, he keeps succeeding.
By the time Busio was nine, his brother Matteo, older by six years, had begun to stand out at the local club in Greensboro, N.C. That year, Matteo, a dominant defensive midfielder, was selected to the North Carolina Fusion Development Academy’s U-15/16 team. That was the first time Busio saw there was more.
“When Matteo started playing academy, I saw what it was like,” said Busio. “That’s when it started to get more serious.”
He found another level to work towards. Playing up a year in Greensboro, as Busio had done since he was six, provided a challenge. And he met every challenge quickly.
“At one point during Fusion tryouts, I remember telling the U-16 DA team coach, ‘Even though he’s just 14, you might want to pick the Busio kid. He’s the best kid out here,” says Wade Forte, a long-time Greensboro coaching director and now the Fusion Academy director who remembers Gianluca tagging along to Matteo’s practices, always with a ball attached to his foot.
“He has an uncanny ability to get out of pressure,” adds Forte. “He could see and think ahead of everyone else. He has a lot of natural ability, and the ball just sticks to his right foot, but he’s very good with his left, too.”
How he fine-tuned his skills
When Busio attended his first U-15 national team camp, he found out MLS academies had much more to offer than the Fusion Academy back home.
“I found out about all the extra stuff they were able to do and the extra exposure they got,” he says. “Half the team was with MLS academies, and if I wanted to keep up with them, I needed to get that kind of training every day.”
So he approached his parents about leaving home to join an MLS academy. He didn’t have much luck at first.
“We said, ‘You’re 13. You’re not leaving home. Go do your homework,’” says his mother, Dionne. “We thought that would be the end of it.”
But it was just starting. The New York Red Bulls called. Then the Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia Union. An invitation from Fulham came. Busio’s dad, Alex, is of Italian descent and Matteo and Gianluca have Italian passports and full rights as Italian citizens. The family discussed options in Europe.
If Inter Milan had entered the picture, dad’s stance may have softened a bit, but his parents still thought he was too young for a move.
“Matteo told us we were crazy if we didn’t do it,” recalls Dionne. “He was 100 percent behind it. He would have loved to have had that opportunity. He would have taken it in a minute. He said, ‘What’s the point of keeping him at home just because you don’t want to let him go?’”
Dionne and Alex, stuck to their decision but agreed to visit some academies and educate themselves for next year.
“All the clubs had really good programs and made really good points,” says Dionne. “The only problem was they weren’t in North Carolina. But Gianluca was relentless. He really wanted it.”
One of the people the family talked to was Marc Nicholls, the technical director of the Seattle Sounders Academy and the former technical director in Greensboro. Nicholls had coached Matteo, who is now a junior midfielder at UNC Greensboro.
“We trust Marc as a soccer coach, as a person and as a parent,” says Dionne. “He told us that if Gianluca really wanted to pursue a professional career, he needed to play at that level all the time.”
In the end, Sporting KC did the best job of outlining its program -- the path Busio could take, schooling, host family, everything. Busio agreed.
“When I first got to KC, I felt like they really wanted me here,” he says. “The team was like a family, and they brought me into it right away. I felt they were interested in me and were going to focus on me.”
Learning about himself far from home
The entire process has taught Busio plenty about the realities of adapting to life outside of his comfort zone.
“I learned that it’s all driven by the player, really,” he said. “Others can help you but they can’t do it for you. If you are motivated enough and work hard enough and push yourself enough, you will be successful, no matter where you are or how old you are. I never really thought about being too young. Yeah, I’m younger, but like they say, if you are good enough, you’re old enough.”
He’s training with Sporting KC’s first team now, learning on the job, and the path the club has laid out for him is clear. His first aim is to earn time with Sporting’s USL affiliate, Swope Park Rangers, while continuing to play in academy matches.
The standard cautionary tale comes in the form of Freddy Adu, whose 2004 signing with D.C. United at age 14 makes him the only younger acquisition in league history. Dionne is confident her son has a strong foundation to not be making poor decisions in his newfound professional life.
“He’s not going out tomorrow and buying a Maserati. He’d need my signature to do it anyway.”
With a solid foundation and an organized off-field life, all that remains is how he performs on the field. Powell says Busio can certainly handle it.
“As he got older, in each environment he was the top player,” says Powell. “From a U-13 state-wide team playing up, to the Fusion Academy, to an MLS academy, to opportunities with U.S. national team … everywhere he goes, he keeps succeeding. He still has a long way to go to reach his ceiling, but as long as he keeps working hard, he’ll do well. He has fantastic ability.
“I still think his best days as a player are way, way in the future.”