Think back to your 16-year-old self and imagine you’re stepping onto a professional soccer field in front of 20,000 screaming fans to start against people double your age, some of whom who have played in Europe’s top leagues. Sounds intimidating, right? Maybe even a bit scary?
Not for Gianluca Busio.
The 16-year-old midfielder took to the Children’s Mercy Park field as part of an MLS starting XI for the first time on Sunday afternoon, filling in for Roger Espinoza who was serving a red card suspension.
“It was gonna come at some point,” the teenager said. “I was ready for the opportunity and I’m glad we could get the win.”
By now, Gianluca is used to making history. The club signed Busio in August 2017 when the midfielder was just 15 years and 89 days old, making him the second youngest player to ever sign an MLS contract. Nearly a year later, he made his first MLS start in August 2018 in a 1-0 road victory against the Houston Dynamo, setting up Diego Rubio’s game-winner and becoming the second youngest player in MLS history to earn an assist. Just a couple months later, Busio started again in a 4-1 road victory against the Vancouver Whitecaps where his goal made him the second youngest goal scorer in MLS history.
But Sunday was different. It was the first time the teenager would start an MLS match in front of the Blue Hell. It was Sporting Kansas City’s 2019 MLS home opener. Nearly 20,000 screaming fans were in the stands, and The Cauldron unveiled a gorgeous “Vermes Army” tifo just before kickoff.
The moment wasn’t lost on him. “I saw the video up there, and I heard everybody screaming,” Busio said. “It was one of the best moments.”
If he had any butterflies heading into the match, he certainly didn’t show them. Busio completed 88 percent of his passes on the day (21/24), and fired two shots on goal. He was inches away from scoring before being subbed off in the 78th minute.
His biggest contribution came just 10 minutes into the game. Sporting KC were threatening in the attacking third, and as they were looking to strike, Busio was shoved from behind by Union defender Auston Trusty. Busio went down in the box, and referee Chris Penso pointed to the spot, where Ilie Sanchez stepped up to bury the ensuing penalty kick.
“I felt a push I guess. I was running to stick my foot out to get the [ball],” Busio said. “I felt something in my back and it was enough for me to go down and they called it.”
Throughout the rest of his 78 minutes, Busio was involved all over the field. He mostly played in the attacking half, though he completed all but one of his passes in the defensive half of the field to go along with two tackles, a clearance, and three recoveries on defense.
His debut almost ended in true storybook fashion, as Ilie sent a gorgeous ball forward to spring Busio into a one-on-one with Union keeper Andre Blake. Unfortunately, the ball just got away from the 16-year-old before he could tap it into the net.
“I made the run and I could get a touch on it, but not a hard enough touch,” Busio said. “My first initial thought was to chip it, but I saw [Blake] going up, so I tried to bring it down. I got a little bit on it, but Trusty made a good run back to block it out.”
Even with the missed goal, manager Peter Vermes had nothing but great things to say about the teenager after the game.
“We forget too often that he’s 16-years-old because he plays so well with the group. He’s sitting with guys that have families, kids, houses. He’s 16. He calls his mom after the game, not because he wants to say hi, but he’s calling his mom because he’s probably asking her if he can stay out later tonight.”
Vermes continued, “For him to have the kind of maturity he does out on the field, he has incredible street smarts in the game. He sees things that other guys don’t. He has an incredible future, and it’s not because he’s a good soccer player, he’s a really, really good kid. Great performance by him.”
The talent that Busio has is not lost on his teammates. When asked about Busio’s performance, Ilie didn’t even let reporters finish the question before interjecting with “He was great.”
“He helped the team from the first minute until he got subbed. He’s the future, but not just that, he’s the present,” Ilie said. “He showed it today. Hopefully the team can get in good shape so he can get minutes, and he can feel confident. Everyone here, starting with the coach to the players, we trust him. The club has a really good player for many years, and hopefully he can help us for many games.”
Of course, there’s still room for improvement. Busio began to tire about the 65-70 minute mark. Vermes even mentioned post-game that he probably should have removed him five minutes earlier than he did. But overall, Busio’s first MLS start was impressive.
Going forward, it’s likely Busio will continue to see minutes—probably even more starts—with the first team in some capacity. Sporting KC’s continued appearances in the Concacaf Champions League, combined with the condensed MLS regular season schedule, the upcoming US Open Cup, and international call-ups will continue to create chances for the 16-year-old to make an impact on the field.
But for now, he’s just soaking in Sunday’s game and trying to learn as much as he can from those around him.
So, after a performance like that will Busio ask his mom if he can stay out late to celebrate?
“I probably will have to ask her, but she’s pretty cool about that.”