Sixtieth minute, Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park. Sporting Kansas City takes a restart just over the midway line on the right wing eight yards inside Houston Dynamo territory with the score tied 1-1. A 12-pass sequence sees the ball move to the back, back to the right wing, swung around to the left wing, forward then back, then again to the right wing.
Once there, the ball is played forward to 10 yards in front of the midway line. Using the space created by Sporting’s ball movement, Roger Espinoza plays back to holding midfielder Gianluca Busio who has slotted into the right center back position. Busio takes a touch and then plays a long, grounded ball to Luis Martins on the left almost even with where the ball began on the opposite wing.
Martins feeds inside for striker Alan Pulido. Pulido draws a penalty that he buries to put Kansas City ahead to stay at 2-1.
Busio’s ball (the only time he touches the ball in the sequence) is a good one. Yet the pass is nothing more than one would expect from a good professional soccer player. The space he benefited from was acres in size, and the pass was his best – almost only – option as the Houston defense had adjusted.
The sequence epitomizes what is happening regularly for Sporting Kansas City now. The interchange of players, the fluid ball movement, and the key plays are being consistently and reliably made. And being a part of that is what is making Busio more beneficial to his team. Busio is one of the group of Sporting players who is consistent and reliable. Both are key no matter the setting or context.
Especially when Busio is playing the #6, a vital cog in Sporting’s 4-3-3 setup. But the theme there, too, is the same. The truth is that as a #6, Busio keeps it simple on the ball. However, with the Barcelona-trained passing maestros of Ilie and Andreu Fontas at the center backs, as has been the case in two of the last three matches, Busio is freed to do more. Both against Vancouver Whitecaps two weeks ago and Saturday night against Houston Dynamo, Ilie (241 passes total according to whoscored.com) and Fontas (244) controlled the match. Their wise and quick ball movement (with a playmaking edge) forces opposing defenses to come forward to press them (Vancouver), or, if they choose, to take away the middle of the field (Houston).
The attention Ilie and Fontas garner as they play into wise and skilled MLS veterans like midfielder Espinoza and right back Graham Zusi and the facilitator that center forward Alan Pulido is, all provide Busio (186 passes total) the benefits of space and time. Thus, Busio at the #6 becomes more reliable, and, better yet, more like Busio at the #10.
Then, Busio can execute high percentage passes that facilitate or help finish off goal scoring plays or punctuate his play with the spectacular: see his world class strike against Orlando City on April 23rd and Saturday night’s free kick golazo against Houston. Busio’s benefits will win Sporting Kansas City points.
The Greensboro, NC native’s progression, prompted by the situations and opportunities he has been provided on a graduated basis, has been nearly ideal. One of my previous articles states how Busio went from a “tantalizing bit player to a bona fide starter” in 2020. What has prompted his 2021 rise? As he vowed when he asked for the #10 shirt in preseason, Busio has stepped up his performance level. Stepping up his performance level has generated not only new avenues on the field, but new problems for Busio to solve. These avenues and problems have pulled the 19-year-old’s natural talent and cultivated abilities out of him. The more daring and more ambitious one is, the more challenges one can conquer and the more benefits one produces.
“The things that he’s able to pull off on a regular basis and do it consistently is incredible. He’s just got a great attitude,” said Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes in the post-game press conference Saturday night. “I don’t think he gets the recognition that he deserves. He is a fantastic player. He is a great kid. He continues to display what a great soccer player he is every time he steps onto the field.”
The praise is warranted, especially from one who sees Busio in action every single day. Let’s be frank, reliable and occasionally spectacular relative to his peers is not a level that every player in MLS or LaLiga or Serie A reaches. Surely, however, Vermes is fully cognizant of Busio not being a complete, finished product.
MLSSoccer.com analyst Matt Doyle warns that Busio’s defensive grit needs to be consistent, reliable, even persistent in his article reflecting on Week 7 in MLS. Agreed. At San Jose Earthquakes, Busio was duped defensively seven times and allowed Chris Wondolowski to drift all alone to the back post for a 72nd chance that MLS’s all-time leading scorer should have finished. At times, on the possession side, Busio is too slow to get into available space to be that necessary option for goalkeeper Tim Melia and Ilie and Fontas.
And, while praising Sporting’s budding starlet, Doyle’s goes too far in claiming that Busio has been “setting the tempo and establishing a rhythm for his side while all alone at the back point of the 4-3-3.” Sure, Busio has been a part of that, certainly more so in the May 22nd 3-1 win at San Jose when Fontas did not play, but Ilie and Fontas have been the larger parts.
What is most to like about Busio is that he is aware of what he needs to do to keep reaching new levels. He knows he needs to make a larger impact on each match, knows that he needs to increase those all-important goals and assists numbers. The youngster is working on all that, even the persistent grit:
When Busio does move on to Europe with a club taking an educated gamble on him (I’m guessing after the 2021 season concludes.), he will draw on the benefits he has reaped in Kansas City under Vermes, the Sporting staff, and his teammates’ all-encompassing tutelage. As he possibly starts the progression process all over again, without everyone looking out for him.
The meteoric rise of MLS grads Alphonso Davies and Zach Steffen, and the recent successes of Daryl Dike and Brenden Aaronson in the European theater have dulled our knowledge of reality. If Busio is to see success over there in an opportunistic time frame, he will need to not only exhibit his well-known adaptability, but be consistent, persistent, and reliable right away. And more than occasionally spectacular. Otherwise, he will risk being bogged down in the “potential star” production line. That “great attitude” Vermes lauded will be tested like never before.
May Busio’s “full house” of consistency, reliability, and adaptability, complemented by his natural talent and cultivated ability evolve then (and why not now?) into a royal flush.