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Not for the first time in his blossoming MLS career, Gianluca Busio showcased quality and class well beyond his years on Saturday evening at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
The decisive moment that grabbed headlines, of course, came with 67 minutes on the clock and Sporting Kansas City trailing the Colorado Rapids by a 1-0 scoreline. Johnny Russell’s in-swinging corner kick was headed clear only as far as Busio, who took a perfect first touch to settle the ball before sending a 25-yard laser into the bottom corner to level terms.
The 18-year-old’s exquisite strike proved vital, as Sporting would emerge with a 1-1 draw to push their lead atop the Western Conference table to five points.
The goal itself—punctuated by a fitting Wakanda Forever celebration in honor of the late Chadwick Boseman, the famous actor who lost his battle with cancer this weekend—was inarguably the highlight of the night for Sporting, but it only begins to tell the story of Busio’s effectiveness in the holding midfield role.
Logging the full 90 minutes at the No. 6 position for the third straight match, Busio won a game-high five tackles against the Rapids—the most by a Sporting player this season and the second-most by an MLS player across the 10 league fixtures that took place Friday and Saturday. The only other player in Saturday’s match with more than one successful tackle was teammate Khiry Shelton, who finished with three.
Busio also won seven duels, tied for second-most in the game behind Shelton’s 10. From a distribution standpoint, he completed 27 of 31 passes at an 87.1% clip and was successful on all 11 of his passes in the attacking half of the field.
“Each game, I think (Busio) gets better and better. The goal was a great strike and he has that quality in him, so it was good to see it,” Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes said postgame. “He had a good performance again. Each time he’s getting to be smarter and smarter in some of the decisions he’s making both with the ball and without it.”
Busio’s contributions were instrumental in helping Sporting secure a road result in the face of adverse circumstances. Midfielder Roger Espinoza and center back Winston Reid were both forced to exit before halftime with what appeared to be minor injuries. In the 78th minute, the team was reduced to 10 men when Gadi Kinda received his second yellow card.
Amazingly enough, Saturday marked the first time since the dawn of the Opta era in 2010 that Sporting made two first-half substitutions in an MLS match. Rapidly improving Academy product Felipe Hernandez replaced Espinoza—and led all field players with eight recoveries by the end of the night—while Roberto Puncec relieved Reid and partnered Graham Smith in central defense.
Despite the injury setbacks and Kinda’s ejection, Sporting were largely effective in keeping Colorado at bay. The Rapids had 62.7% possession but seldom carved out an open look, save Cole Bassett’s go-ahead goal in the 57th minute.
In fact, Saturday was only the ninth time since 2010 in which Sporting had less than 40% possession but still outshot its opponent. Vermes’ men finished with 13 shot attempts and faced only 10.
An even quirkier stat sheds more light on Sporting’s ability to hold the Rapids in check. The visitors’ 37.3% share of possession was the third-lowest by a team to concede zero corner kicks in an MLS match during the Opta era. Sporting ended the game with an 8-0 advantage on corners.
All in all, it was an encouraging defensive display for a team that leaked five goals last Tuesday in a disappointing home loss to the Houston Dynamo.
“We stay organized throughout the game and we didn’t lose ourselves after they scored,” Vermes said. “We found a way to get back into the game. And then being able to close it out being a man down showed a lot of grit from the team, which we needed to after last game’s performance. We talked about how we were going to respond, and I thought the guys responded very well.”
Sporting’s busy run of matches will continue with two games next week. First up for the Western Conference leaders (5-2-1, 16 points) is a home date with FC Dallas (2-1-3, 9 points) at 7:30 p.m. CT on Wednesday at Children’s Mercy Park. Three days later, Vermes’ side will look for revenge against Houston (1-2-4, 7 points) in a 7 p.m. CT tilt at BBVA Compass Stadium. Both contests will be shown live on FOX Sports Kansas City Plus and FOX Sports GO.