Roger Espinoza, he, the 31-year-old, 9th year MLS veteran, laughed as he looked back in his mind. “If you ask me what I was doing at 17 or 19-years-old, I was just hanging out in the summer pool in Denver at that time, thinking about having fun with my friends, and these guys are playing professional games.”
“These guys” are the three Sporting Kansas City homegrown teenagers on the first-team roster: Forward/Midfielder Gianluca Busio, 16, who signed in August 2017 (the 2nd youngest player all-time to sign an MLS contract); Back Jaylin Lindsey, 18, who signed in September of 2017; and Midfielder Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal, 19, who signed in April 2018.
Beginning with the June 3rd hosting of Minnesota United, each has logged significant first-team minutes for the club that each began with in the academy. And both they and Sporting Kansas City have reaped smiles, laughs, and other intangible and tangible benefits.
“It’s been fun to watch these guys, to get them more involved. All three of them have brought their own personalities into the group, but at the same time they’ve come in and shown a level of respect to the other players and to the club,” Captain Matt Besler stated. “Sometimes you don’t see that with young players, so that’s a huge compliment to them that they are able to be themselves and have fun and show their teenage personalities at times, but also know when they step on the field, this is how you conduct yourselves.”
“As an older guy, sometimes having those kids [around], you are learning things from them, just the way they go about and some of the off-field stuff,” Besler wryly conceded. “Some of the older guys have enjoyed picking their brains and putting them on the hot seat as to what’s going on in the social media world and the high school lingo. We’ve had a lot of fun grilling them, but they’ve done a great job and fit in extremely well.”
A recent Lindsey feature, for example, highlighted his affection for musical artist Post Malone, Nutella (duh!), his jump-roping ability, and his penchant for dancing in the locker room.
On the field, Lindsey has logged 121 minutes, while Kuzain, lauded for his ability on the ball and his midfield positional versatility by Espinoza and Manager Peter Vermes, respectively, has garnered 165 minutes, scoring his first MLS goal in his second appearance. Busio became the youngest player to ever appear in a professional match for Sporting KC, starting and playing the full 90 in the June 6, 2-0 US Open Cup victory at Real Salt Lake.
The adjustment to first-team play is fraught with pitfalls and past victims. Yet all three have made it almost routinely, paralleling Vermes belief that players need “to get a routine in a position” wherein their situational awareness becomes automatic, leading to a “comfortability” that allows for effective improvisation in the “odd moments”.
“Right now, both of those guys [Lindsey and Kuzain] are getting a chance to do that because of the consecutive games that they’ve been playing in. And they are really giving something to the team, which is great. We are getting results,” Vermes said, highlighting the optimal benefit for both player and club. “If you go from Minnesota on, they win a home game; they advance in the US Open Cup [at Real Salt Lake]. They get put on the road in [Portland] – 37 that they’ve played at home, they’ve had [five] shutouts, and we’ve done it [four of those times] – so having those guys come on and play in that game and still be able to get that result is huge. Now coming home and advancing again in the Open Cup. Those experiences are tremendous for those guys.”
Just imagine the criticism and dismay the teens, and, perhaps, Vermes could have felt if the club had not faired well. But likely due to their individual acumen; the consistency of the pro-pathway from academy to second-team Swope Park Rangers to the first team; and their training, all three and the club have handled a flurry of injuries to regular starters and flourished.
And all factors point to that continuing as the critical benefit of intra-club competition is fostered.
“It’s no surprise to me [that they have been doing great]… You can see that they are going to get somewhere. They ask questions; they listen; they are concentrating and want to do well. And when someone wants to do well like that, it makes you want to help them,” said Espinoza, the two-time Honduran World Cup veteran. “They are holding their own… They’ve earned it. It was not given to them… Then you have guys as Swope that are coming along too. Everybody is pushing everybody, which is great competition.”
By no-means are the careers of Lindsey, Kuzain, and Busio assured. But so-far-so-good.
“If I had a message for them, it’s just to keep going. It’s a huge compliment and a lot of credit has to be given to them for how they’ve been able to step in and perform…,” said Besler, before issuing a challenge. “The challenge for them is to take a deep breath, be confident with what they’ve done so far. But now this is really when the focus starts and the hard work begins for them – how can they do it on a consistent basis?”