Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
The United States men’s national team has announced its roster for the upcoming trio of World Cup Qualifiers, and the 27 players traveling to Austin represent a step into the unknown for the USMNT. Injuries have kept out Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, two of the most important players on the team, while forward mainstays Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok have been dropped as Ricardo Pepi continues his ascension into must-start status. The team’s depth, and reliance on youth, will be tested during one of the most important qualification windows. Panama, Costa Rica, and Jamaica should theoretically be three of the easiest CONACAF opponents (especially since two games will be in the U.S.), but that means the team has to put some points on the board, and they’ll have to earn them without their talismanic forward.
Though the forward line will experience the most turnover, my eyes will be on the team’s midfield unit. The USMNT’s first World Cup qualifiers featured a roster with just five true midfielders, all of whom besides Tyler Adams had their issues (ranging from “not that good” to “allegedly horny“), and the midfield was pretty soundly outplayed for the bulk of the first three games. That’s a pretty serious problem, a more foundational problem to the team than having a different group of dudes in front of that midfield making runs and taking shots. Dominating the midfield against overmatched opponents leads to way more bites at the goalscoring apple for whoever you have up front. This is why Luca de la Torre, Yunus Musah, and Gianluca Busio joining the team for this go-round is so enticing. Gregg Berhalter has augmented an overstretched group with three young studs, each of whom brings a distinct skillset to the table. Today, we’ll be covering my favorite of the bunch, Gianluca Busio.
Who Does He Play For?
This summer, Busio led what looked like a charge of Americans joining newly promoted Serie A side Venezia. Venezia’s journey through the ranks of the Italian soccer pyramid has been pretty remarkable, as they played all the way down in Serie D just five years ago. Former New York Stock Exchange CEO—a position I did not know existed—David Niederauer bought the club two years ago, and they fought a successful battle last season to make it back to Serie A after a 20-year absence. Niederauer’s club was immediately linked to half a dozen or so American prospects, though they only signed Dabo Swinney’s godson Tanner Tessmann from FC Dallas and Busio from Sporting Kansas City. We should note here, since there’s not really a better place for it, that Venezia has the best kits in all of Europe. I mean, come on!
Busio moved across the Atlantic right after turning 19, though he’d been with SKC for nearly half a decade. There was a real care and patience in his journey to Europe. Busio signed a homegrown contract with the club shortly after turning 15, making him the second-youngest player in MLS history. He fielded numerous academy offers after a successful USYNT camp, including one from Manchester United, though after discussing the development system with his new pals Gio Reyna and Joe Scally, he picked SKC because of their strong developmental record. Busio was mentored by USMNT vets Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, and his path from MLS prospect to legitimate MLS star was oddly linear: first starts and first assists gave way to thrilling playoff wins and jawdropping highlights. A star turn with the U-17s turned into a serious role on the 2021 Gold Cup–winning side.
A move to Europe was pretty much inevitable from the moment he cracked the SKC first team, and despite apparent serious interest from Barcelona (not that they have, you know, money), he picked Venezia, where he’s settled in without issue. A couple of stats apps rate him as the club’s best player this season, which tells you what you could see by watching him for 90 minutes: Busio can operate at a very high level under pressure.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
Busio plays in the center of the park, as something approximating a canonical No. 8-type center midfielder. If you watch him play, his omnipresence jumps out at you. Busio is everywhere, all the time, winning balls back in the defensive third, then helping pressure the opposite box seconds later. The other thing that leaps out about Busio is his physicality. He’s very small! At 5-foot-7 and 140-or-so pounds, he doesn’t have the bulk of your typical destroyer, and while he’s shown himself to be a fairly adept positional defender, he does get bullied by bigger, older players.
But this is all an intro to what Busio truly excels as: kicking the ball into tight spots, with his right foot. Teenage MLS players do not often draw reasonably serious Sergio Busquets or Thiago comparisons, and while Busio is obviously not in that tier and probably never will be, his control is really something. He’s good at every sort of pass, with 80-plus percent accuracy stats in most categories and truly impressive long-ball numbers. When given time on the ball, he can make plays from way back, and he has that rare metronomic quality you see in midfielders who always seem to make the right play even if it’s not the spectacular one. The only criticism you can make is that he doesn’t always push it forward, even if he’s good at it.
The USMNT midfield corps has a decent variety of players, though nobody else really plays like Busio. Nobody is as committed or prolific as a facilitator. Weston McKennie runs around and does stuff, Tyler Adams controls the game with tackling and pressure, and Yunus Musah can shrink the field by running with the ball through pressure. Busio is the lone deep-lying playmaker, and his potential as a possession ace makes him valuable to a team that needs help in that particular area.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
It is worth seriously considering Busio’s ceiling here, since he’s maybe the best prospect in the U.S. player pool at the game’s most important skill. The usefulness of Busio’s enviable passing range scales with team quality, and he has the potential at the deep-lying playmaker position or any of the other adjacent midfield slots to be a real player at a very good team. His free kick ability (see below) also translates directly to the highest levels. We’re looking at a Miralem Pjanic-level player if everything hits.
However, Busio as currently constructed is not quite a good enough defensive cover or tight-space playmaker to earn minutes at the Champions League level, which points to a fork in the road in his development. His floor is Serie A starter, but to reach his ceiling, he will have to show that he can either fight as a deep midfielder or produce as a creative player. Otherwise, his team would have to cover for both his defensive and offensive shortcomings, as midfielders at the highest level can’t have those sorts of liabilities.
Adding to that, Busio is still a teenager, and is also is a cool handsome guy who plays for one of the most stylish teams in Italy, which is a nice bonus. All in all, the WI gives him a 6 out of 7.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
Busio is right-footed. Check. Busio is good at tackling and winning back the ball. Check. Busio can play both offense and defense. Big check. You know what it is: Gianluca Busio can play right back.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
And here’s his assist for Venezia’s first home Serie A goal in two decades.
How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
As hinted at above, Busio offers a passing range rivaled by none of the other midfielders in the pool. That said, his performances for the USMNT have been uneven, and it’s not entirely clear that his unique skillset coheres all that well within Gregg Berhalter’s system. It’s worth considering that his senior-level experience has all come with the Gold Cup B-team, a group that got by on shutdown defense and didn’t do much in the way of attacking. It makes sense to me that Busio fits better into a more possession-oriented USMNT, the sort we will likely see in these upcoming games. Adams, Musah, and McKennie (and for that matter, some of the MLS vets) are ahead of him on the depth chart, but none of them are gifted at passing as Busio is, so I really think he’ll have a role on the team at some point soon.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
Maybe not this window, however. Adams is a real lynchpin, and as the Honduras game showed, his midfield presence elevates the USMNT. McKennie also needs a big window, as he’s been pretty uneven with Juventus lately and his last camp ended somewhat disastrously. Berhalter still clearly trusts him, and while I think Busio would help unlock McKennie to do what he does best, I see the MLS guys getting more playing time against Panama and Costa Rica because, well, I’ve watched a CONCACAF game before. Still, he’s not far from regular playing time. I expect to see him against maybe Jamaica, and maybe as an energy substitute in one of the other games, because we can’t afford to run Adams into the ground.