America’s next great hope

Manchester City found its latest starlet in … Pennsylvania? 


In the 15-month history of this column, I’ve written about just one male player from the United States. Today, I’m finally writing about the second.

Even if you’re a casual soccer fan, you may have recently heard the name Cavan Sullivan. His is the kind of story that makes headlines outside of soccer-insider communities because of its sheer absurdity, at least when you take a bird’s eye view.

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Manchester City — the reigning champions of England, Europe and the world as we know it — paid up to $5 million to sign Sullivan, who is currently 14 years old and playing in the Philadelphia Union’s youth system.

Yep, you read that correctly. Fourteen, born in 2009. Even for this column, which trades on the successes of young athletes, the number 14 drives me insane. When I was 14, I played for my middle school’s “B” soccer team. Sullivan, on the other hand, has City scouts reportedly calling him the best player his age in the world.

Now, before I tell you about Sullivan’s backstory and the nitty-gritty of his game, I find it necessary to give the following disclaimer about Sullivan, or any 14-year-old future superstar.

Fourteen years old is really young. A lot can happen between now and 2030 when Sullivan would still be eligible to appear in this column. Placing the future of a national or club team on his shoulders is simply an unrealistic expectation, and as long as he is making a living playing soccer in a decade or two, I will consider his career a success. After all, for every Lionel Messi, we have a Freddy Adu — another former American wunderkind who went from appearing in a commercial with Pelé to last playing in a professional match for the Las Vegas Lights in the United Soccer League, the U.S.’ second-tier competition.

With that out of the way, why did City want to lock up Sullivan so badly? What makes him a special player at such a young age?

For one, Sullivan — at least in part — can thank his soccer-obsessed family for his rapid development. His older brother Quinn has already made 90 appearances for Philadelphia Union’s senior team and played in 17 games for the under-20 U.S. men’s national team. Also, Sullivan’s dad works as an assistant soccer coach for Villanova University’s men’s team, reporting to none other than his grandfather Larry, the head coach. 

And while having family members to kick about with and provide inspiration certainly gave Sullivan somewhat of an advantage, his game now speaks for itself.

Like the wunderkind from our last installment, Brazil’s Endrick, Sullivan has the distinction of being left-footed, which is always a fun wrinkle in the style of an exciting player. While not super uncommon, that left-footedness still differentiates Sullivan from many attackers in the angles and dribbles he can pull off against defenders. You need not look further than Lionel Messi to see how a left-footed winger and attacking midfielder can confuse and make opposing defenders look silly. I can’t compare Sullivan to Messi after the disclaimer I offered a few paragraphs ago — not that anyone can compare to Messi — but Sullivan has that same capacity to twist through and around defenders with a deceptive touch of his left. 

More importantly, he’s not just a hyper-confident, tricky dribbler; Sullivan produces goals, too. Last year, he scored two goals for the U.S. under-15 national team in their 2-2 draw with England, both of which were unsexy strikes. Sullivan’s first goal came from simply intercepting the goalkeeper’s pass attempt, taking one dribble step and then blasting the ball into the net. And for his second goal, the U.S. team had a free kick on the left flank and whipped it toward the back post, after which the ball bounced across the box. Sullivan capitalized on the chaos and volleyed into an open net. 

And despite still being 14, Sullivan has already made his senior debut. In March, Sullivan played his first match for Philadelphia Union II — the Union’s second-division squad that plays in the MLS Next Pro league — and immediately proved his ability at the pro level.

Sullivan provided the game-winning assist in a 2-1 win over New England Revolution II: an audacious, over-the-top lofted pass that put striker Sal Olivas in a favorable counter-attacking position. It’s a Toni Kroos-esque pass, something you’d be more likely to see from a veteran holding midfielder than a hot-shot young attacker. 

I don’t want to over-read Sullivan’s potential based on one pass, but that assist is essentially why I’d back him to start for Manchester City in five years or so. Yes, Sullivan has an almost unreasonable confidence and a taste for flair that don’t always serve much-hyped youngsters in the long run. But, like his goals against England also show, Sullivan also provides functional productivity. He can embarrass a defender off-script — to borrow some American football parlance — but when City manager Pep Guardiola asks him to fit his role, you can almost guarantee goals and assists will follow. 

Current Manchester City star Phil Foden is not going anywhere — the Englishman is just 23 years old himself — but Sullivan could absolutely play a Foden-esque role, sitting in those traditional attacking midfield spaces and controlling games with his wand of a left foot. Who better for Sullivan to learn under when he eventually makes the move to City?

Whatever happens with Sullivan’s career in the long run, his agreed-upon transfer shows how well American academies have developed and their ability to produce genuinely world-class young players. Hopefully, during Sullivan’s career, U.S. fans will be able to witness that transition from high potential to real results, with Sullivan leading the charge for the next generation of American ballers. 

Jack Hallinan is a junior writing about the top wunderkinds in men’s and women’s soccer in his column, “Rising Ballers,” which runs every other Thursday. He is also the Talkin’ Troy Podcast Editor at the Daily Trojan.

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