Gianluca Busio strolled into the Sporting Kansas City training facility late last summer, one of three planned stops in his search for a new team.
He was greeted by Sporting KC constituents, who ushered him around the premises, using the fields, locker rooms and dining hall as recruiting tools. In the ensuing hours, Busio concluded the visit with a dinner at a Kansas City restaurant and a tour of the city.
“The way they showed me around that day, I felt like I was a star,” he said.
Within a week after the visit, he spurned offers from two other Major League Soccer clubs in favor of settling in Kansas City. A Sporting KC staffer referred to the agreement as having the potential to be one of the club’s most significant moves in 2016. “It could be a game-changer,” he said.
Busio is considered to be head and shoulders above his peers. A couple of English Premier League scouts have expressed interest.
He is a high school freshman.
But for Sporting Kansas City, kids like Busio are the way of the future. As spending skyrockets across MLS, the club’s reluctance to enter the arms race means its development of prospects is no longer a bonus.
It’s a necessity.
Kansas City is the second-smallest American TV market in MLS, and for better or for worse, Sporting KC has no intentions to participate in an arena that has seen Toronto FC pay three players a combined $18.4 million.
Even after 10 additions to its senior roster this offseason, Sporting KC will not pay a single MLS player north of $1 million — a statistic that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Alternatively, its Plan B:
“We have to develop our own players. We have to,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We’re not going to be investing millions of dollars into a few players. We have to take that money and invest it in a structure that will create those players ourselves.
“That’s going to be the key that will keep us competitive.”
In short: The Sporting KC Academy.
The club’s academy is in its 10th season. In that span, it has produced four Sporting KC players, referred to in MLS lingo as homegrown players — Jon Kempin, Kevin Ellis, Erik Palmer-Brown and Dániel Sallói. Only Ellis appeared in an MLS match last season.
The long-term plan demands more.
Sporting KC ownership says it has infused approximately $20 million into the academy — an all-expenses-paid structure for the players. In the past year alone, Sporting KC has added six scouts on stipend salaries who focus almost exclusively on pinpointing potential academy prospects.
While each MLS team is allotted a homegrown territory that is off limits to other clubs, more than half of the country is unassigned. Free for all.
And therein lies the real intrigue — the top division of soccer in America … fighting for the rights to teenagers.
“It’s the new Wild Wild West,” said Mike Jacobs, the assistant technical director for Sporting KC.
The academy scouts are taught to analyze players under the Sporting Kansas City microscope. Would they fit into Vermes’ 4-3-3 system?
Busio, 14, joined the SKC Academy from North Carolina after he was spotted in a Florida showcase. North Carolina is unclaimed territory in which Sporting KC has notably increased its resources over the past 12 months. Several other MLS teams begged Busio to visit their academy programs after learning he lived in North Carolina. He was an eighth-grader.
The Sporting KC future rests — at least partially — on winning similar recruiting battles for middle-school and high-school aged players.
“Maybe three or four years ago, you would watch (Sporting Academy teams) at a national event, and in terms of talent, they wouldn’t jump off the page,” said Will Parchman, a staff writer at Top Drawer Soccer, a website that covers youth soccer. “I think that’s really changed.
“They’ve gotten creative in their recruiting. I think that’s a hallmark of Peter Vermes. In the way they’re smarter on the transfer market, that’s trickled down to their academy.”
Sporting KC fields academy teams in the Under-18, U-16, U-14, U-13 and U-12 age divisions, the project led by academy director Jon Parry. While the unclaimed territories have required increased focus, the academy still invests most markedly in its homegrown locations — all of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. Sporting KC also has 15 affiliates spread across the Midwest, more than any team in MLS.
Although it is the only MLS club to have exclusivity to three states, a team such as LA Galaxy, which possesses only a 75-mile radius around its home stadium, is considered to draw from a more talent-rich player pool.
There is an effort to change that. In spring 2016, Sporting KC opened two “centers of excellence” for Under-11 and U-9 age groups (though unlike the academy teams, parents pay for their kids to participate).
Essentially, in its own backyard, Sporting KC is predicting the potential future of 10-year-old players — and it is banking on nailing some of those predictions.
“The hope is that each year, the incoming talent will be better than the previous years. And in the last four years, when the U-12 group has come in, we’ve said it’s the best U-12 group we’ve ever had,” Parry said. “That’s a great statement to how the landscape is progressing.”
The alarm sounded at 4 a.m. on many mornings inside the Benson family home in Omaha, Neb. Thirteen-year-old Ollie and his father, Ron, packed into the car and drove to Kansas City.
At least three times every week, the Bensons made the trek so Ollie could participate in the SKC Academy. The game days required the early wake-up calls. In a year, Ron says he put 55,000 miles on his car. He stopped tracking the hotel costs.
“Sporting has shown it’s leading the way in player development in our region,” Ron said. “If you want to make it — this is the way.”
Recently, the Bensons bought a second home in Lee’s Summit.
Many players originally from out of the region instead live with host families. Busio lives with a host family here — which in return receives payment — and attends Blue Valley West High School. He acknowledged an adjustment period that lasted several weeks.
All for the dream.
In the academy, players are essentially required to quit other sports in favor of participating in the academy year-round. Their daily routine is built around their obligations there. It’s all worth it, they say, pointing toward an objective to one day play inside Children’s Mercy Park.
But the hard truth is most will never make it. In fact, perhaps fewer than 10 will.
“When we evaluate them, we say they are academy kids, academy standouts or pro prospects,” Parry said. “I think we’ve got a lot of pro prospects in our academy right now.”
Responded Vermes: “You have to understand that every academy director in the league says that. He has to be confident in the kids he has. And then it’s my job to challenge him on that. It’s the only way we’re going to find out who the kids are who can actually make it and make sure we’re putting the investment into the next step.”
The Sporting KC Academy had eight players represent the United States in the youth national team system in 2016. With Vermes’ approval, the program plays many of its premier athletes up in age — a strategy not every MLS team implements.
In 2015, the SKC Academy’s U-15 team won the U.S. Youth Soccer national championship. Half of the group was comprised of 14-year-olds.
“The biggest thing for me is how can we accelerate a prospect as quickly as possible,” Jacobs said. “We think that’s to take them out of their comfort zone.
“When a baseball player steps into the on-deck circle, he puts the doughnut on the bat so the real one feels lighter once he steps into the box. This is the same concept.”
Sporting KC believes it has an advantage over other MLS academies in a key aspect. Longevity.
In November, LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena was named the U.S. men’s national team coach. That left Vermes, 50, as the longest tenured boss in MLS. In November, he signed another contract extension that will run through the 2019 season.
“We don’t think any of this works without Peter,” said Mike Illig, the son of Cliff Illig, a principal owner.
Sporting KC has not yet seen its financial investment prompt a consequential payoff at the MLS level, though the front office believes it is close. If it does receive the payout — and that remains an “if” — it won’t happen overnight.
A long-term plan has slowly rolled been out during Vermes’ tenure. A year ago, the club unveiled the Swope Park Rangers, a minor-league affiliate for Sporting KC. Vermes refers to the Rangers, who play in the United Soccer League, as the top of the academy totem pole — a bridge between the senior team and the academy.
Some younger players reached the connection this offseason. Will Little and Felipe Hernandez, academy graduates, signed professional deals with Swope Park last month. Both turned down major Division I college scholarship offers.
“When you see everything right there in front of you, you take the chance,” said Little, who is in preseason with Sporting KC in Tucson.
It could be another two or three years before Little or Hernandez reach Sporting Kansas City’s first team. Or perhaps they never make it at all.
But these are the wagers Sporting KC is prepared to make. The ones Vermes believes his team must make. Even if they require patience.
Sporting KC has infused its roster via other avenues this offseason — and it expects to therefore remain competitive in the short term — but that’s precisely what will be required to ultimately judge the academy’s success.
“I’m not sure our sport — or any sport, for that matter — allows for much patience,” Vermes said. “But I don’t care how everyone else is going about it, to be honest with you.
“This is who we want to be. This is who we have to be.”