Gianluca Busio was one of the last players to depart the Sporting Kansas City practice field Tuesday. As his teammates walked toward the locker room, he was still circling the field, collecting equipment and storing it in a bag over his shoulder.
For the better part of five months, this has been the work environment of a 16-year-old soccer player. The culture remains unchanged, even as the national spotlight begins to centers on his potential.
On Saturday, Busio became the third-youngest player to start an MLS match. He was the second-youngest to record an assist, which came on Diego Rubio’s game-winner in a 1-0 win in Houston.
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“Getting the start was just an unreal feeling, really,” Busio said. “To get out there and do the walkout and everything, it was a really cool experience.”
Busio signed his Sporting KC contract 50 weeks ago, a 15-year-old academy player seen as one of the best American attacking players in his age group. It was a deal motivated by that potential more than his current preparedness to help the senior team.
Busio was the second youngest signing in league history, behind on only Freddy Adu. More than a decade ago, Adu was once the future of American soccer. But that never panned out, and there is no shortage of theories for why. A popular one: He was thrown into the fire before he was truly ready for the responsibility.
And so when Busio signed last August, Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes cautioned patience. He would take it slowly, he said. There was no rush to throw him on the field. He would need to earn his spot.
The development demanded a chance. Busio has impressed Vermes in practice this year, enough that he was offered his MLS debut two weeks ago. In a losing effort, Busio stood out, enough that he was given his first start a week later in Houston, with midfielder Roger Espinoza serving a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Once again, other than the records and history and outside hoopla, his age was a non-factor.
“Man of the match for me,” Vermes said. “He played fantastic. For a 16-year-old kid to play the way he did in that game is incredible.
“He was very, very mature in the game. They took a few real shots on him. He never lost himself.”
It was an intriguing situation for Busio. Only 14 minutes into the match, he absorbed a shoulder to the back of the head, a play that resulted in an ejection.
On the Sporting KC bench, a coaching staff waited to see how its teenager might respond. Five months earlier, it placed Busio in the lineup for his third preseason appearance. As the game accelerated and its physical nature heightened, Busio disappeared. Vermes described the game as “a bit of an eye opener” for Busio.
The potential was there. But he wasn’t quite ready. He opened the season with the Swope Park Rangers, Sporting KC’s minor-league affiliate.
Busio was fine with the assignment. He had never set a timeline on his progress. But practicing with the first team — with World Cup veterans Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi — prompted thoughts of a grander future.
“I felt like once I started playing with the pros, it made me work harder,” Busio said. “I see what they have, all the accomplishments they have, and I want that, too. I want to play in World Cups.”
Only 60-some days ago, Busio obtained his driver’s license. On Wednesday, after another morning of rookie chores, Busio planned to go home and play XBox with his friends. In a few weeks, he will have schoolwork to complete after practice.
But on Saturday, he will travel once more with Sporting KC, as it prepares for Los Angeles FC.
“Outside of soccer, I still try to have a regular 16-year-old life,” Busio said. “But here, I try to be a professional. This is my job. I take it seriously. I have a lot of goals I still want to accomplish. This is a good starting position, but it’s not even close to my future goals.”