The new kid in school sat at the lunch table one afternoon. He had made a couple of friends who wondered what brought him to Kansas City.
“I came to play soccer,” he said.
Wait, you moved here to play soccer? Don’t they have soccer in North Carolina?
“I’m here for the academy,” he replied.
You moved here to play soccer for an academy? Do you have family here or something?
The new kid shook his head, his curly brown locks moving side to side. He changed the subject. It was easier that way. “They thought I was crazy,” he said. “I wasn’t going to change their minds.”
Gianluca Busio is a teenage boy with a grown man’s job — heck, with a job some grown men dream of having — but this journey didn’t always make sense. Not to his friends. Not to his parents.
Not even to himself.
“Those first two or three months, all I wanted to do was go back home,” he said.
Busio signed a professional contract with Sporting Kansas City in August 2017, 89 days after his 15th birthday.
He was the second-youngest signing in Major League Soccer history and the youngest ever for Sporting. He has since become the league’s second-youngest goal scorer.
Mom and Dad live 1,000 miles away in Greensboro, North Carolina, parenting via FaceTime. Busio lives with a host family in Kansas City. His mom pleads with him to pick his clothes up off the floor, and she finishes evening conversations by reminding him to brush his teeth every night.
She interrupted the interview for this story with a phone call. “That’s probably my mom,” Busio accurately predicted as he felt the buzz in his pocket. “Asking if I’m caught up on my homework or something.”
In his day job, Busio, now 16, is a midfield playmaker wise well beyond his years — in both talent and maturity — who is proof of an academy pathway to the pros gone right. Whose potential just might one day fund the academy. Who this month led the United States Under-17 youth national team in scoring as it qualified for the World Cup.
And whose 20- and 30-something teammates began a practice last summer by forming a “tunnel,” a Sporting KC tradition to celebrate the most notable of accomplishments.
Busio had passed his driver’s license test.
‘He’s a very persistent kid.’
When he was 3, Busio would attend all of his older brother’s soccer practices. Insisted on it, actually. He also demanded the chance to join in. So as a bunch of 9-year-olds ran laps around the field, there was Busio at the end of the pack, running the mile along with them.
Years later, when Busio would see something soccer-related on the Internet that impressed him, he would pause the video, walk outside the back door and just go try it. Then he would return inside, rewind the clip and make sure he was replicating it correctly. Over and over again.
“I call it his triangle — couch, yard, computer. Couch, yard, computer,” his mother, Dionne, said. “He wouldn’t stop until he had figured it out.”
Busio was a three-sport athlete. He actually took a year off from soccer when he was 12. For at least awhile, he thought he was going to play point guard in the NBA. But his brother got invited to a nationwide soccer camp, and Busio liked the sound of that.
He rejoined soccer with a local team, the North Carolina Fusion, before he was invited to his own showcase camp. Scouts littered the campus. Afterward, the U.S. youth national team invited him to a winter camp.
The best 13-year-olds in the country were there. They boasted of their places within MLS academies. One of them told a story of training alongside David Villa in New York City.
And what about you? they asked Busio.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, I train with my brother in North Carolina,’” he said.
Busio starred in Greensboro. His parents thought he would land a Division I scholarship one day, following the path of his older brother.
With the U.S. youth national team, everything felt different.
“You’re no longer the one good player. There are a hundred other good players. I didn’t like that,” Busio says. “I wanted to be the man. And going back to a place where I’m clearly the best, I realized that’s not going to help me at all.
“I can go the easy route — stay here four years, (then) college, but that’s not going to help. If I really want to be where I want to be, I’m gonna have to make jumps.”
When he returned home, he did some homework. His new friends talked extensively about those academies. So at 13 years old, Busio sat down at the computer every day, digging for information on them.
“I didn’t really know how to research it,” he says. “I mean, I was 13.”
They were on the verge of coming to him. After another showcase in Florida, Sporting KC Academy director Jon Parry received a phone call from one of the team’s scouts in the Southeast.
“We have to get this kid,” the scout said.
For the next several weeks, Busio pestered his parents about touring some of the academies. About venturing out on his own to chase a dream.
“I think my exact words were, ‘Uh, no, that’s not happening. You’re not moving,’” Dionne says. “But like I told you, he’s a very persistent kid.”
The move to KC
During the summer of 2016, Busio traveled to Kansas City to start his new life. He walked into a host family’s home — a setup organized by Sporting KC — and began unpacking his things. Clothes. Shoes. Toiletries. Everything.
He had met the family of six just one week earlier.
“My head was spinning,” he said. “It was just weird. I’m putting stuff in my new room like, ’Did I just make a big mistake?’”
The farewell party was the hardest day. They set everything up like a college commitment ceremony. Or, as Dionne describes it, one of those gender reveal parties staged by expectant parents.
The colors represented three teams, and nobody outside of his immediate family knew where Busio was headed. Seattle. Philadelphia. Or Sporting KC.
A year before he would sign a professional contract, Parry recruited Busio like some sort of Rivals top-100 high school quarterback prospect. The Sporting KC technical staff celebrated as they learned of his decision. He jammed his essentials into a suitcase like a kid starting college and moved to a town in which he knew precisely no one.
He had not yet completed a day of high school.
Busio picked Kansas City, some 996 miles from home, because the recruiting trip made him feel like a star. But there was no media coverage of his commitment at the farewell party. No live announcement on ESPN. Just a quiet day with family and friends. His parents spent their energy holding in their emotions. They didn’t want to spoil his day.
“I was sad, nervous, anxious, worried — all of it,” Dionne said.
Some MLS teams house academy players in dormitories, similar to college. Busio wanted to get away from soccer every day. To clear his mind after practice.
The host family setup was a draw. He was an adopted son, of sorts. But he struggled with the transition, even more than he had anticipated. An unfamiliar lifestyle at home. The new kid at high school. And for the first time in his life, he was no longer the standout on the soccer field.
“I hated it here, to be honest,” he said. “It’s just being a 14-year-old and being away from my family. And everything was new — I mean, everything.
“I wanted to go back. I told my mom I wanted to go back. I remember she said, ‘Just go a day at a time; we can talk every night.’ So that’s what I did. I went one day, one day, one day.”
A pathway to the pros
Thirteen years ago, when Peter Vermes initially joined Sporting Kansas City’s technical staff, the academy did not exist. It was still a year from launching. The team on the field was a mess, so that commanded the staff’s full concentration.
“The last thing we were thinking about was how to develop these kids and how they’re going to fit in,” said Vermes, the club’s sporting director and coach. “We had so many things on our plate — we were just trying to put a team on the field that could have a little bit of success.”
The academy has ballooned to 116 kids in 2019. Plenty more are turned away after tryouts. Vermes calls it the most critical piece of the franchise’s future.
Sporting KC holds rights on youth players from Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Then there are those like Busio. He hails from unclaimed territories, every MLS team free to recruit him into their youth systems. Busio is technically a “homegrown” player because he migrated through the club’s academy, even though he grew up in North Carolina.
As the academy ages, the resources grow. Sporting KC pays scouts to exclusively find younger players like Busio. They spend money to advertise for host families. They cold-call in search of volunteers. They hire full-time employees to focus purely on the well-being of the kids.
It can all seem so smooth when Busio scores in three consecutive MLS matches, but the reality is a departure. In Greensboro, Busio’s older brother and sister were among the most popular kids in school. Following in their footsteps would have been easy. In Kansas City, he was the new kid with few enough friends to count them on one hand. Who missed home. Who missed his parents. Who missed anything resembling contentment.
“That’s not abnormal for a kid to feel that way,” Vermes said. “It’s part of the process. And it’s something we spend a lot of time taking about. Sometimes it just takes time, but sure, those are things you have to (think about) when you’re talking about kids. We even have people in place to help our first-team guys get more acclimated to moving here. For a kid, that’s even more important.”
For Busio, the gradual turn of the proverbial corner arrived shortly after his first winter break. He withdrew from high school and now takes online courses instead. He moved in with a new host family. The changes were a better fit.
With his new host family, the basement is something of a man cave for a 16-year-old boy. Big-screen TV. Living room. Bedroom. Even a miniature turf soccer field in case he gets the itch to kick the ball around. Inside the home of a family of four — one son and one daughter — Busio has found his place.
“People are quick to judge about sending your kid away for soccer. I think about this a lot,” said Sarah Tiedt, the mother of the host family. “Could I do it? No. But that’s because our son isn’t Gianluca. I think it’s hard for people to comprehend this until they see there’s so much talent. He knew this is what he had to do.”
The talent stood out immediately. So did Busio’s demeanor. He is not exactly an in-your-face type of player. He’s creative, smooth, technically sound and possesses a unique way of seeing the game. Always been that way. That’s why he liked playing point guard. He could create.
“The first time I saw him play, just his overall maturity on the field was amazing,” Parry said. “The way he carries himself jumps out at you. He’s 16, but he plays like he’s 26.”
The youth national teams kept inviting Busio to tournaments. The interest grew. Manchester United called. Italian teams did, too — his father is Italian, and Busio holds a valuable European passport.
Sporting KC acted first. The contract offer came in the summer of 2017. On the day he signed, he practiced with the first team. “Watch your language,” one player shouted as Busio jogged onto the field. “We’ve got a kid out here.”
“I’ll be honest, when we signed him, we were confident he would be good but knew that it was going to take some time,” Vermes said. “But the more he trained with us, the more we realized, look, this kid can help us now.”
‘What a future he’s got’
Busio scored his first goal with Sporting KC last October, and the initial call he made after the game was to his mom. Months earlier, Busio wanted to get a tattoo — “maggic,” representing the first and middle initials of Busio and his two older siblings, Matteo and Ilaria. But he’s underage, so it required parental consent.
Mom said no. Well, she thought she did. To ease the rejection, she instead told him he could get one after he scored an MLS goal.
“I’m regretting those words,” Dionne said.
Sure enough, “maggic” is scripted across Busio’s forearm. Dionne told him he needed to score three goals if he wanted another. Earlier this season, Busio became the youngest player in MLS history to score in three straight games.
But alas, Dionne has found a benefit to the miles of separation. “At least he can’t get another one until I get there.”
Busio has started four matches in 2019. He has scored three goals.
A year ago at this time, he was catching rides to practice with older teammates Seth Sinovic and Matt Besler. He’s a second-year player now, but he still has rookie duties after training. Picks up the flags and cones after practices. Wheels the goals back to the sideline. Fills the fridge in the locker room. “I think I’ll be a rookie for another five years,” he said.
After a few months, teammates say Busio began to come out of his shell and show his personality a bit more. That was strategic. He was careful not to step on anyone’s toes. He quickly learned when to joke around and when to be serious. During water breaks, he waits for the veterans to get a drink, and then takes his turn at the end of the group.
“He’s never once gotten a big head about things to where anyone had to put him in line or anything like that. I’ve never seen that happen,” forward Johnny Russell said. “He’s great to have around. The guys enjoy him.
“And what a future he’s got.”
Asked to grade how Busio adjusted from sharing a locker room with academy players to now sharing one with grown men 10 or 15 years his elder, Vermes replied, “What’s your scale?”
A, B, C, D, F.
“Well, how about an A-plus?” he said.
But there’s some caution there, too. Vermes is careful not to throw out any predictions about Busio’s future, and he uses only a few superlatives. He is calculated with how he coaches the mental aspect of his young star’s ascent.
“Just doing this article is a concern and honestly something I think about,” Vermes said. “How will he be afterwards? That’s a real thing we have to consider and handle.”
Teammates describe Busio as grounded. He says he is aware he has a long way to go. Aware that for some teenage phenoms, it didn’t work out.
There have been some welcome-to-MLS growing pains mixed into the progression. He was removed at halftime during one of his four starts this season.
That’s part of the process, too.
“When I walk onto the field, nobody out there cares who I am. They don’t care if I’m the youngest to do this or the youngest to do that. Most of them probably don’t even know me,” Busio said. “Now, at the end of the game, I’m gonna want them to know.”
Scouts do. Vermes says several have visited Children’s Mercy Park this year. He knows they’re observing Busio. The U.S. U-17 performance this month will garner more of that attention.
Truth be told, Busio has aspirations to play in Europe. With his father’s Italian heritage, Busio grew up watching Inter Milan. Boy, that would be cool, he thinks.
Vermes says the objective is not to sell Busio for some exuberant transfer fee. Rival executives who spoke to The Star say he could generate in excess of $10 million. A member of the Sporting KC staff replied, “Not enough.”
Besides, the club remains committed to developing Busio here. It will adjust to the future as it comes. Busio isn’t in any kind of hurry, either. He enjoys the city he once said he hated. Those friends who questioned his future? They now come to some matches.
“I guess, looking back on it,” Busio said, “it doesn’t all seem so crazy now.”