By Tim Nash
Darren Powell has made a career out of recognizing soccer talent, and he knew there was something special about Gianluca Busio when he first saw him.
Even if Busio was just five years old at the time.
“Gianluca and my son Caleb are the same age and played on the same team when they were little,” says Powell, the former coach at Elon University, former Academy Director at Orlando FC, and now the head coach of the USL’s San Antonio FC.
“Even as a five-year-old, he stood out on the field with exceptional technical ability,” says Powell. “He had the ability to run with a soccer ball with coordination and balance. It’s just looked very natural.”
So, Powell was among the people completely unsurprised on Aug. 24 when Gianluca Busio (jahn-LOOKA BOO-see-o), a quick, creative and versatile forward, became the second-youngest player ever to sign an MLS contract at 15 years and 89 days. His signing came on the heels of a five-goals-in-five-game performance with the U.S. U15 National team at the CONCACAF Championships earlier this month.
“It’s a great feeling to be with a national team,” said Gianluca. “It’s a great accomplishment individually. It makes you work harder when you are wearing the crest and playing against other countries. For me to be able to do that and be part of the CONCACAF tournament with the U.S. team is just a great feeling.
“I didn’t expect it this soon, but a bunch of people had told me that MLS was starting to sign younger and younger players,” admits Gianluca. “One of my U.S. teammates (George Bello) signed a pro contract before I did, and I was thinking that maybe I could get one. So, I knew it could happen, but I didn’t think it would happen this soon. I was amazed.”
By the time Busio was nine, his brother Matteo, older by six years, had begun to stand out at the local club in Greensboro, N.C. That year, Matteo, a dominant defensive midfielder, was selected to the North Carolina Fusion Development Academy U15-16 team.
“When Matteo started playing academy, I saw what it was like,” said Gianluca. “That’s when it started to get more serious.”
That was the first time Busio saw there was more. He found another level to work towards, bigger worlds to conquer. Playing up a year in Greensboro, as Gianluca had done since he was six, provided a challenge. But Busio met every challenge quickly.
“At one point during Fusion tryouts, I remember telling the U16 DA team coach, ‘Even though he’s just 14, you might want to pick the Busio kid. He’s the best kid out here,” says Wade Forte, a long-time Greensboro coaching director and now the Fusion Academy assistant director who remembers Gianluca tagging along to Matteo’s practices, always with a ball attached to his foot.
“He has an uncanny ability to get out of pressure,” adds Forte. “He could see and think ahead of everyone else. He has a lot of natural ability, and the ball just sticks to his right foot, but he’s very good with his left, too.”
Time to Go
When Busio attended his first U15 national team camp, he discovered MLS Academies had much more to offer than the Fusion Academy back home.
“I found out about all the extra stuff they were able to do and the extra exposure they got,” he says. “Half the team was with MLS Academies, and if I wanted to keep up with them, I needed to get that kind of training every day.”
So he approached his parents about leaving home to join an MLS Academy. He didn’t have much luck at first.
“We said, ‘You’re 13. You’re not leaving home. Go do your homework,’” says his mother Dionne Busio. “We thought that would be the end of it, but Gianluca was relentless.”
The Red Bulls called. Then Seattle and Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia. An invitation from Fulham came. And Gianluca’s dad Alex is of Italian decent and Matteo and Gianluca have Italian passports and full rights as Italian citizens. The family discussed options in Europe. If Inter Milan had entered the picture, dad’s stance may have softened a bit, but his parents still thought he was too young for a move. His brother had another opinion.
“Matteo told us we were crazy if we didn’t do it,” recalls Dionne. “He was 100 percent behind it. He would have loved to have had that opportunity. He would have taken it in a minute. He said, ‘What’s the point of keeping him at home just because you don’t want to let him go?’”
Dionne and Alex, stuck to their decision but agreed to visit some academies and educate themselves for next year.
“All the clubs had really good programs and made really good points,” says Dionne. “The only problem was they weren’t in North Carolina. But Gianluca really wanted it.”
One of the people the family talked to was Marc Nicholls, the Technical Director of the Seattle Sounders Academy and the former Technical Director in Greensboro. Nicholls had coached Matteo, who is now a junior midfielder at UNC Greensboro.
“We trust Marc as a soccer coach, as a person and as a parent,” says Dionne. “He told us that if Gianluca really wanted to pursue a professional career, he needed to play at that level all the time.”
In the end, Sporting KC did the best job of outlining its program — the path Gianluca could take, schooling, host family, everything.
“When I first got to KC, I felt like they really wanted me here,” he says. “The team was like a family, and they brought me into it right away. I felt they were interested in me and were going to focus on me.”
Learning About Himself
Gianluca has come to understand that the process is where the important lessons are learned, and he has learned plenty.
“I found out I have a good work ethic,” he says. “When I first got here, I was the new kid on the team and I had to prove myself, so I had to work hard. I wasn’t a starter, so I had to work for it. The first couple months were hard. I didn’t know anyone at school and didn’t really have any friends. I could’ve easily said I don’t want it anymore and gone home. But it made me work harder, and it worked out very well for me.
“I learned that it’s all driven by the player, really. Others can help you but they can’t do it for you. If you are motivated enough and work hard enough and push yourself enough, you will be successful no matter where you are or how old you are. I never really thought about being too young. Yeah, I’m younger, but like they say if you are good enough, you’re old enough.”
He’s training with Sporting KC’s first team now, learning on the job, and the path the club has laid out for him is clear.
“I will probably play with the Academy and then start fresh with the first team next year. I’ll try to get in with the first team and try to get in games with Swope Park Rangers (Sporting’s USL affiliate).
Comparisons to 13 Years Ago
Those who know Gianluca, aren’t concerned that his career will mirror that of Freddy Adu, the youngest ever to sign an MLS contract. In 2004, Adu inked a lucrative MLS contract at age 14 and proceeded to live the classic too-much-too-soon story.
The year before Busio was born, Freddy Adu was 11 and playing for the Potomac Cougars at the 2001 US Youth Soccer National Championships in Lawrence, Ind., just outside Indianapolis. A native of Ghana, Adu moved to the U.S. when his mother won an immigration lottery when Freddy was eight years old.
In Indy that year, there was a buzz around the field every time Potomac played. Word had gotten out about Adu’s prodigious talent, “Come on, you gotta see this kid,” was heard as people walked toward the Cougars’ field.
College coaches had come to see him play and soon realized they were wasting their time. “He’ll never play in college,” one said. He was right. Freddy signed an MLS contract in 2004 at age 14 after two years at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Three years later Freddy was at the 2004 MLS Draft in Charlotte, N.C., when DC United made him the league’s No. 1 pick. He had been in the country for just six years and he was a millionaire. They threw a scarf around his neck, shoved a Sierra Mist in his hand, and he did his best to answer questions about becoming the savior of pro soccer in the U.S. before he could drive.
At that point, Major League Soccer was down to 10 teams and developmental programs were a farfetched dream. Only one team averaged over 20,000 fans per game (LA Galaxy averaged 23,809). This season, 12 of the 23 MLS clubs average over 20,000.
The rest of the Freddy Adu story is a bit bewildering. He clearly had the talent to play professional soccer, but he is currently without club at age 28. Last year, he was with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL, his 13th club in 12 years.
The similarities between Adu and Busio end with their rare talent, their ability to do whatever they want with the ball whenever they want. The health of MLS couldn’t be any more different today than it was in 2004. And Busio, who is spending time in the Sporting Academy program and lives with a host family, is in a program at Sporting KC that allows for sufficient time and education before being thrust in a glaring spotlight.
Don’t expect to see Gianluca in a commercial with Pele, like Freddy did, or in Sporting’s starting lineup, or on the bench, until he is ready to be successful.
“Like any parent, I worry,” Dionne says. “But we hope that having 14 years with him doing things we hoped would make him a decent human being gave him a good foundation. He is with a great host family, and there are lots of things in place in Kansas City to make life as normal as possible, including a Player Welfare person.
“He’s not going out tomorrow and buying a Maserati. He’d need my signature to do it anyway.”
But there’s little doubt that Busio is special. US Soccer fans learned that when he scored five goals in five games at the CONCACAF Championship in August. Unlike Adu, Busio can benefit from a developmental system that allows time for development.
Major League Soccer Academies are getting good at showing their young player a clear-cut path to the first team and helping they get there. Gianluca understands the situation he is in and the work it is going to take.
“Going from the Academy to the first team is a big step and can ruin you if you’re not ready for it. But going from the Academy to the USL team is a good. Getting games with them is a good second step.”
The rest of Busio’s story, the truly exciting part, remains to be seen, of course, but based on his first 15 years, it’s worth waiting for.
“As he got older, in each environment he was the top player,” says Powell. “From a U13 state-wide team playing up, to the NC Fusion Academy, to an MLS Academy, to opportunities with US national team … everywhere he goes, he keeps succeeding.
“He still has a long way to go to reach his ceiling, but as long as he keeps working hard, he’ll do well. He has fantastic ability. I still think his best days as a player are way, way in the future.”