Gianluca Busio: 'The American Pirlo' set for Serie A after USMNT debut

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When Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes began preparations for his team's 2018 pre-season, he also formulated a plan for the club's teenage prodigy Gianluca Busio.

In the 18 months or so since Busio had joined the club as a 14-year-old, he had impressed enough to earn a taste of training with the first team.

And that was what it was supposed to be for the 15-year-old: a taste.

"I remember when he first came to his first pre-season with us, I had a plan already set out on what it was gonna be like after pre-season," Vermes tells Goal. "I had a plan for what he was going to do with our second team and what he could maybe do with our first team.

"As soon as the pre-season was over, I had to tear up the plan because he already outgrew it!"

In the years since, Busio has continued growing and growing and growing.

He made his professional debut for Sporting Kansas City II just after that 2018 pre-season finished, two months shy of his 16th birthday.

Just nine days after turning 16, he made his first-team debut in the U.S. Open Cup, with an MLS debut following shortly after.

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He has made 61 appearances between the ages of 16 and 19, steadily going from reserve to starter to star for a Sporting KC team that remains an MLS Cup contender.

All of these landmarks were reached faster than many imagined, with plans were torn up over and over again to accommodate a player that simply cannot stop getting better.

He made his U.S. men's national team debut on Sunday, coming on as a substitute and making quite an impression in front of a home crowd during the team's Gold Cup opener against Haiti.

In that debut, he shone, instantly stepping on the field and looking a class above even some of his more experienced team-mates.

And, as that USMNT career starts, it appears his MLS career may be nearing its end. Busio looks to have a big-money transfer on the horizon, with several clubs in Serie A linked with a seven-figure deal for the 19-year-old.

"I’ve done a lot at a young age," Busio said ahead of his USMNT debut. "From when I signed when I was 15, I always wanted to make my national team debut. This is the next step for me.

"When you’re 15, you just think about getting on the field and making your debut for your MLS team. A couple of years later, you’re trying to get into the starting lineup and be a consistent starter. I did that this year, and now my goal is to make the national team - and that’s what happened.

"This is a big step for me and, throughout my career, I’ve been really lucky with these accomplishments at such a young age. I’m lucky to have that happen and I’m excited for what’s next. I think my next step is going to be even bigger and I’m looking forward to it."

So too are many throughout American soccer, who have watched Busio's growth since he was 14. The midfielder has been in the spotlight for several years, as he became the youngest player since Freddy Adu to sign with an MLS club when he was awarded a Homegrown deal just a few weeks after his 15th birthday in 2017.

And that is what makes his rise both rapid and steady. He's a player that has seemingly conquered every step of the American soccer pyramid before turning 20, but he has also been a player that fans have seen excel at each level along the way.

Watching the teenager, it is easy to see how and why his ascent has occurred.

Busio, who is is of Italian descent through his Brescia-born father, has all the smoothness of the Italian game baked into his own skillset. He is incredibly calm on the ball and has the vision to match. He sees plays as they happen and seemingly always picks the right response. A bit of pressure? No matter. Busio just turns, glides and moves the ball to where it needs to go.

Having originally emerged as a more attacking midfielder, Busio has played just about everywhere for Sporting KC at some point or another. He has featured on both wings at times, as a No.10 and even as a 'false nine'.

But, in recent years, Vermes has attempted to mould him into a different type of player. In Busio, he sees a deep-lying playmaker, a No.6. He sees a player similar to Andrea Pirlo or Jorginho, one that can dominate his game all by himself.

"The one thing that he can do at the six is that he has an incredible engine," Vermes says. "He's dynamic and has athleticism, so he can cover a ton of ground.

"He's incredibly, incredibly good on the ball. You can use him in the build-up, you can use him on the counter. He can give the final pass.

"You know how Pirlo was a deep-lying playmaker? He has those qualities in him and at the same time, he's got a pop from distance. He also can then adapt and be a ball-winner and grind the game out if he has to from a defensive perspective. Just his progression in one-v-one defending in certain games, it's astounding for me."

Even with those skills already at a high level, Vermes says Busio's biggest assets are on the mental side. He often doubles back to mention Busio's humility and also his passion, saying that those aspects have helped him get this far, this fast.

But no player is a finished product at 19. Even the best continue to learn, and Busio still has growing to do and other plans to ruin.

And, when asked, Vermes is able to pinpoint one weakness: respect, and not a lack of it. There are times, Vermes says, where Busio does not know how good he is, does not understand what he can do if he simply decides to do it.

He remembers watching Busio play Teqball as an academy player and be hesitant, afraid of embarrassing his team-mates. That attitude, in some ways, has stayed with him in the professional game, and Vermes is eagerly waiting for the day that Busio simply stops caring about what others may think.

"He scores this incredible free-kick," Vermes says reflecting on a stunner Busio scored against the Houston Dynamo earlier this year. "We were training the day before, and I told one of my assistants that if he gets a free-kick, I'll guarantee he's going to score it. He's just so good at it. He's precise and you can just see it. You could just see it was coming.

"The key was is he going to step up and say, 'Hey, I got it,' because he's respectful of the other guys around him. We have Johnny Russell, [Alan] Pulido, who have been around the game longer than he has. 

"He's respectful of that, but when he decides that he doesn't have to do that anymore,  and it's when he decides because he can do that right now, I think that's the thing. It's just him saying, 'It's now me, my turn, my time, and I don't have to be respectful of everyone else around me'."

In some ways, that will be key to Busio's next step, which is set to come sooner rather than later. He is reportedly closing in on a move to Venezia, with MLSSoccer.com reporting that the newly-promoted Serie A side have offered $7 million (£5m) and a sell-on percentage to sign him away from Sporting KC.

For his part, Busio has seemingly been unfazed, having carried on making his mark with Sporting KC and, now, the USMNT.

“That stuff will figure itself out, I think. I have people around me who can handle that for me,” Busio said. “My main focus is just on playing soccer, and right now I'm focused on the Gold Cup and playing as well as I can.”

Good things have happened for Busio in the years since that pre-season trip. His steady rise has seen him climb higher and higher, surpassing expectations while creating new ones along the way. And now, he is pushing towards a new level, one loaded with senior internationals and European stars.

In Vermes' eyes, he's more than ready for it.

"He doesn't get mixed up in what club is going to buy him and understands that everything is centered around him playing well," Vermes says. "I think he's a person of the present. He just really understands the situation and he just loves the game, which is a big piece of why he is who he is. 

"He really loves the game. He knows the game of soccer internationally, follows the Champions League, follows everything and he's very aware of how he fits into that landscape and what he wants as a player.

"He's a kid that I know is going to hit an incredibly high ceiling. His ceiling is incredibly high because of what I have seen him do over the last four years or five years,

"It's been a consistent progression and evolution in his play that has been just nothing but positives."