Outside Red Bull Arena, the clinks of Coronas, a blaring Bad Bunny track and the anxious frenzy of juggling circles score the dusk.
Inside, a sprite with copper-tinged hair skates around his contemporaries in hot-pink cleats: Sporting Kansas City midfielder Gianluca Busio, still weeks shy of his 19th birthday.
Sporting KC boss Peter Vermes had an edict for “Bus” (his nickname, pronounced “Boose”) at a practice earlier in the week: “Cause havoc.” It’s something of a mantra for the wunderkind from Greensboro, North Carolina.
“I didn’t have stuffed animals, I had little soccer balls,” Busio tells ESPN about his childhood. “My brother dribbled around the house before I could walk. As soon as I could, I was [off] and kicking.”
In 2017, Busio became the youngest player since Freddy Adu to sign a Major League Soccer contract, at 15 years, 2 months and 28 days. He soon wanted a tattoo but was too young; his mother, Dionne, conceded that whenever he scored his first goal, he could. Less than 180 minutes of playing time later, Busio found the net.
Fine, Dionne reasoned, make it three next time.
Dionne thought he’d be 18 when that happened, but just before he turned 17, Busio became the youngest in MLS history to score in three straight games.
Suffice it to say Busio’s body of work (in the literal and figurative sense) has been rendered a canvas in constant evolution. Dionne has stopped setting benchmarks for her son.
“He came out ass-backwards and has been doing everything ass-backwards since,” she joked.
It’s hard to disagree. Most don’t leave home to embark on a professional sports career at 14. Most also don’t earn the awe of one of the most important names in American men’s soccer history before they can vote.
“I had this plan for him [coming in],” Vermes says. “Preseason with us, training with us, two or three weeks with our second team.
“By the time preseason was done, I had to tear up the plan. He was [already] more than good enough to be around the first team.”
Most aren’t the second-youngest American to make a Gold Cup roster in United States men’s national team history.
“His time has come,” said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter recently, ending speculation about Busio’s international future when he sent him on in the 62nd minute of the team’s first match against Haiti.
In less than 30 minutes on the field, Busio completed 90.3% of passes and came within inches of a debut wonder goal for the ages, a half volley beckoning the upper 90 that forced a save. He thrived on and off the ball, singlehandedly controlling the pace of a United States side expected to make the final.
As Busio is wont to do.
He may just as soon see the field overseas; sources close to negotiations say a transfer could be completed by next week, with teams in Italy, Portugal and Belgium vying for his services.
One could be forgiven for thinking Busio’s come across a prodigious rabbit’s foot, but, if you ask him, it’s all going according to plan.
“I have to move,” a 14-year-old Gianluca concluded, the words confounding his parents.
Having been discovered at a regional tournament by UConn recruiting czar and coach Mike Miller while with the North Carolina Fusion, Busio had just returned from his first youth U.S. Soccer camp call-up. He’d befriended George Bello, Giovanni Reyna and Joe Scally, the Atlanta United FC, Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach products, respectively. They’d discussed U.S. Soccer’s developmental academy system, how it replicated European academies and provided a built-in pathway to professional soccer in the United States.
Busio’s future crystalized in front of him.
“It was his first time playing with [those guys],” Dionne remembers. “He’s like, ‘I gotta do this. I gotta play with guys like this all the time.'”
In the late 1980s, Dionne waitressed her way through UNC-Greensboro from a bachelor’s degree to PhD. One day, a technician for an Italian textile company, who frequented his company’s hub in Greensboro, walked in. Dionne told her friend she’d marry Alessandro at first sight. Thirty-two years and three kids later, they’re still together.
“I grew up in the South Bronx, he’s from Italy,” says Dr. Busio, who parlayed those degrees into a career as an assistant professor of family and childhood studies at Appalachian State University, says. “Small world.”
Alessandro wasn’t much of a player, but he poured his passion into Gianluca and his older brother, Matteo, who played at both UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Charlotte.
“He stills tells me what to do,” Busio chuckles. “If I score a hat trick, he’ll tell me, ‘Good job, but next time, score four.'”
Kismet worked her magic on Dionne and Alessandro, but left them unprepared for their youngest to concoct a plan at odds with everything Dionne had worked toward. And so their 14-year-old son laid out for them how being in an MLS team’s academy would put him among the country’s best players. It would allow him to devote more time to soccer and the path from amateur to pro would be built in. He researched academies, found contacts and put them in touch with his parents.
“I have to move,” was where he landed.
“I said, ‘You’re 14. Be quiet, go do your homework,'” Dionne recalls. “I had to sit on him to get him to clean his room, but this stuck. This was all him.”
After meeting with Sporting KC, Seattle and Philadelphia — and turning down academy opportunities with Fulham and Manchester United — Busio favored SKC for their track record of players coming out of their academy, like Erik Palmer-Brown and Steven Enna, who play at Austria Wien (on loan from Manchester City) and FC Fredericia in Denmark, respectively.
He’d move 1,000 miles west and live with a host family. Busio, half Black, half Italian, would live with a white family, the Tiedts, in the Bible Belt. Dionne’s sister called up yelling: “How could you send your baby across the country?!”
“I just said, ‘You got to have faith,'” Dionne says. “I didn’t want to leave the raising of my child to someone else, so we were very involved, but they were God-sent,” Dionne says. “It was like [Gianluca] gained two more parents.”
Busio, who still celebrates birthdays with the Tiedts, smirks hearing about Dionne’s fretting. “They thought they had four more years with me.”
When Busio arrived in Missouri, his poise shocked some of his new teammates.
“He’s like Spider-Man,” Vermes says. “‘With great power comes great responsibility.'”
“He was unbelievable on and off the field,” Honduran international and Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza says. “A very humble kid. He works hard, wants to do well, and you see it every day in practice.”
Graham Zusi, the Sporting KC legend and longtime USMNT sparkplug, still remembers the day Busio signed.
“A 15-year-old kid signing with the first team? It just wasn’t normal,” Zusi says. “But he was always playing and acting beyond his years. It’s a humble confidence when a guy wants to just soak up every ounce of knowledge he can.”
Austin FC’s Matt Besler, then Sporting KC’s skipper and coming off 2014 World Cup stardom, had a more personal connection to Busio in those early days: personal driver.
“His host family ended up being less than a mile from where I lived,” Besler says.
Besler would pick Busio up for practice in his Ford F-150 and do radio interviews — “maybe that made me seem old” Besler chides — to and from their training complex.
“He was just so mature for his age,” Besler remembers. “Just had this quiet confidence. He has the quality, talent, puts in the work, and just keeps getting better.”
Both Vermes and Berhalter point to Busio’s adaptability as what sets him apart from players his age, domestically and abroad.
“Wherever he plays on the field,” Besler says, “it’s like he’s played there his entire career.”
“We watch a lot of youth games,” Mike Senkowski, Busio’s agent at Octagon since his first days as a pro, says. “When you see a player with so many different skill sets, they pop out.”
“For him to be able to [play] six different positions on the field really well and understand [the] nuance [for each position]?” Vermes posits. “Him being able to do that is just incredible for his age.”
Busio knew with his frame — 5-foot-7, 140-ish pounds — he’d never body people off the ball. He’d have to be smarter and quicker to keep up. “I’m not a freak athlete or anything,” Busio says. “I was always good enough on the ball, I could keep up technically. That’s what I leaned on for a while.”
“Leaned on” might be a stretch.
Zusi, who recently missed almost half a year recovering from left foot surgery, says that while rehabbing, he was blown away watching Busio’s progression.
“Where we saw the biggest jump was his mentality going into this season,” says Zusi. “It was, like, ‘Holy cow, did you just see what he did?’ To see his growth from last fall to this spring has been incredible. [The whole team], we were just grinning with excitement about the potential.”
“It’s not at all surprising to us what he’s been able to do.”
His stats this season read like they’re out of FIFA 21: Busio is one of two MLS players with a thousand touches and a passing percentage higher than 89%. He’s one of eight midfielders (minimum 900 minutes) with a passing percentage in the attacking third above 83%. He also leads MLS in possessions won in the mid third and is one of seven MLS players with 600-plus passes received.
“Given what he’s been doing,” Zusi says, “it’s only a matter of time before we see him moving.”
It’s not just a matter of time before Europe came calling; they’ve been calling.
“There are times you see young players that are just roller-coaster rides,” Besler says. “But with Busio, [it’s] just been a consistent rise.”
Serie A squads Venezia, Fiorentina and Spezia, Portuguese factory line Sporting CP and reigning Belgian Cup champions Genk are all reportedly in the mix. Busio would join fellow American teenager Tanner Tessmann at American-owned Venezia, for what reportedly would be a club-record fee. Fiorentina is owned by Italian-American Mediacom CEO Rocco B. Commisso, who, like Dionne, came of age in the Bronx.
There were also once rumors about Brescia, Alessandro’s hometown club and where Busio’s idol, Andrea Pirlo, started. The asking price for his transfer has varied from the widely reported $3 million up to $10 million, which would put Busio among the most expensive departures in MLS history. A $6 million deal to Sassuolo was recently (and prematurely) reported as finalized. SKC rejected a $4 million offer from Fiorentina in the fall and two more offers this winter.
“Being linked to big clubs is always going to be special, no matter how old you are,” Busio says. “I’m reading the rumors just like everybody else. I just want to continue to play well enough to make them real.”
To Busio, it’s all just noise. Welcomed noise, but noise nonetheless.
“Europe was always my goal, always the plan,” Busio admits. “I don’t want to force it or rush anything. I want to make an impact right away.”
“I don’t want to just be a number.”
Busio spent June 30 in a cold sweat. A week earlier, he’d been told the United States’ Gold Cup roster would be finalized that day and, up until 9 p.m., hadn’t heard a peep.
So, as 19-year-olds are known to, Bus tried to put it out of mind by playing video games with teammates.
The call from Berhalter an hour later shocked him. He’d made it.
“I slept good that night,” he says through a toothy grin.
Another box ticked. One that, despite captaining and scoring the United States’ only goal at the U17 World Cup in 2019, didn’t seem within reach even recently.
Over Zoom, I’d previously missed the powder blue Sporting KC scarf dangling poetically behind him, the only thing decorating the wall adjacent to his computer. The weight of that color and crest, taking Busio from Greensboro youngster to the U.S. men’s national team and on the cusp of one of the biggest transfers in league history, is palpable.
Not so long ago, it was a pipe dream.
“Manchester United wanted him to come through their system, be a part of what they were doing over there,” Senkowski says. “Why did he turn it down? Because Gianluca felt the family-like structure that Sporting KC created. They did a very good job of laying out a pathway to success for him, [one that] pretty much every step of the way had gone as expected or better.”
But there’s still games this week, Busio reasons. Only these ones, donning the senior team’s colors for the first times, have a splash of gravitas.
Multiple sources interviewed doubted that Busio would make the Gold Cup roster, a precedent set by the U23’s shunning of the Sporting KC star. Busio wasn’t selected for the Olympic qualifying squad and, again, qualification eluded them.
“It’s crazy that he hasn’t been [called in], especially on the Olympic qualifying team,” Zusi says. “He could’ve been a huge asset to that group.”
Busio’s ascendance has reached such a crescendo in soccer’s zeitgeist that most of the questions Berhalter fielded when the roster was released centered around him.
“For me, it’s about moments, timing,” Berhalter says. “He’s been playing so well that this is just a natural time for him to make this step. I’m just [anxious] to see how he can perform with our group because I think he’s a really talented, calm player for his age. I think he can make a big impact.”
The U.S. men’s national team has long been “the next step,” but Busio reiterates that Europe — specifically the Champions League — has always been his Mount Olympus, a fact Vermes confirms.
“When we sat down at breakfast before he signed,” Vermes recalls, “he and his parents [said] his ambition was to play in Europe. It’s been my job to help him do that.”
Imagine Andy Reid excitedly discussing plans for Patrick Mahomes away from the Kansas City Chiefs and you’ve arrived at the novelty of this.
“My biggest thing is that he goes to a place that has a real plan for the next step in his career,” Vermes avows. “I don’t want this to be just a sale. He has so much more to achieve, and I want to make sure that gets realized. I believe that he has a really, really high ceiling.”
A terrifying translation: He’s only begun to realize that potential.
“If he goes to Italy, it’ll be like going home,” Dionne mentions. “We spent summers and Christmases with [Alessandro’s] family in Italy and…” She trails off. “…I want him to be in a place where he can continue to grow as a player and as a person. I just want him to be happy.”
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