For Pete's Sake / Philadelphia Union II / Union

Let’s be normal about Cavan Sullivan

Photo: Ron Soliman

I’ve never watched Cavan Sullivan, age 14, play soccer, and (almost certainly) neither have you.

Sullivan — Quinn’s younger brother — is part of the Union’s Academy. He trained with Union II during preseason and made a (brief) professional debut this past weekend. He’s impressed with the U.S. Under-15s and with Union Academy teams at international tournaments.

He was born just two months before the Philly Soccer Page.

Suddenly, though, he’s part of the global soccer landscape. Rumors have swirled over the past months as to where he would sign — and whether he’d spend some time with the Union first team before his inevitable move to Europe. The headlines refer to him as a “wonderkid.”

Yesterday, the news arrived: the Union and Premier League juggernaut Manchester City agreed to a deal “heavy on add-ons and includ[ing] a sell-on percentage” that will see Sullivan head to England when he turns 18. (He can’t play in England before age 18 because he doesn’t have a U.K. passport.)

Sullivan is also expected to sign the richest Homegrown deal in MLS history and will play for the Union until he turns 18 — unless “his development surpasses MLS” before then, in which case he’d head to a “City Football Group” team (yuck) somewhere else in Europe while waiting for his 18th birthday.

This is a big deal for the Union, which will profit on and off the pitch from a highly regarded talent who’s come through the club’s academy.

And it’s a big deal for Sullivan, who now has a golden path to superstardom laid at his feet.

(Quick disclaimer: I briefly worked at the same law firm as Cavan and Quinn’s mom, Heike Sullivan. Although we were technically colleagues, we weren’t in the same department, and I’m not sure I’ve ever met her.)

But while the agreement is cause for celebration, I hope everyone — Union fans, USMNT fans, and the surrounding media landscape — can maintain some perspective about what it means for a 14-year-old to sign this kind of deal.

Potential, even potential spotted by one of the world’s biggest clubs, is just that: potential.

And soccer history is littered with young phenoms who fall far short of lofty projections.

Just think about Union legend Freddy Adu. Signed at 14 to D.C. United, was out of football by 30, and played for something like 14 teams along the way.

Or how about former USMNT prospect Gedion Zelalem? He rose to prominence at 16 with some eye-catching play for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. But he never broke into Arsenal’s first team, suffered injury and tragedy, and now plies his trade in the Dutch second division. (Art De Roche wrote a great piece on Zelalem earlier this year.)

Even those who do make it can take a winding path to get there. Martin Odegaard was 15 when he did the rounds at Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Arsenal, ultimately signing with Real Madrid. He is now one of the world’s best midfielders, but it took him nearly ten years to reach that level. He bounced around on reserve teams and on loan before moving to Arsenal and finding a club and a manager who believed in him.

The straightforward fact that few “wonderkids” reach their full potential doesn’t stop the greater soccer-sphere from prospect obsession. And, look, you can understand why that is. Fans and media are always looking for the next big thing, for their team or their country to be the one to produce the next Lionel Messi. An unformed lump of clay could, after all, become anything.

But that often means putting an incredible amount of weight on the shoulders of very young men and women.

That weight creates pressure, and pressure can make it hard for a player to get their career on the right path.

As an example, yesterday, my friend Jonathan Tannenwald suggested it would have been “a huge black eye” if Sullivan hadn’t signed with the Union, a choice that would have caused the “sums the team spends on developing top young talent [to] go up in flames” and might have “empowered [other American prospects] to blow off their local clubs.”

Those are serious stakes — the future of the Philadelphia Union’s entire player development system — resting on the shoulders of a young man who’s still years away from learning how to drive.

It’s not fair to put that much weight on Cavan Sullivan.

Nor would it be fair to ask him to be a superstar the second he steps on the field in Union blue.

I’m not telling fans and media not to get excited about talented prospects. I want Cavan Sullivan to succeed, just like I want Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn, and Nathan Harriel to succeed. It would be a wonderful thing if he reaches the highest heights of world football.

I just hope we can all keep some perspective.

The first time Cavan Sullivan steps on the field in Union blue, he’ll be taking the first steps — the very first steps — in what we all hope will be a long and happy career.

The best way to help him get there is to be realistic about how far he has to go.

24 Comments

  1. All3Points says:

    Amen.

    It took literal seconds for the Negadelphia crowd – even the pragmatic bunch of them – to create a narrative around how this was a failure at every level for the Boys in Blue… Before, of course, any single actual detail emerged.

    Now the deal looks fair and potentially lucrative for the hometown side, a lot like – say – their other European deals.

    Almost like the guy in charge has done this before.

  2. Good piece, Peter. In addition to not jumping to conclusions about Cavan’s ceiling as a player, it would be nice if people didn’t start critiquing a deal the details of which I don’t think we know.

    Have seen the self-loathing American soccer fans decrying the deal as setting young Cavan up for failure because he’ll have to spend too much time in an inferior MLS training program. Have also seen the Negadelphians using the deal as evidence that letting Cavan go is a sign of low ambition for the Union (I don’t know what you do with these people, to be honest).

    It’s likely very good for Cavan to have already at such a young age secured passage to Europe and, I hope, will add generous sums of money to the Union’s operating budget, which will ultimately help the club sign new players to the first team and the academy.

  3. I didn’t ready the Tannenwald article but my take is that his comment is more about the Union living up to their claims about the logic of player development than about pressure on Cavan. Other than that, excellent piece and I agree with the sentiment overall.

  4. Jeremy Lane says:

    Sullivan is a real talent. What gives me hope for his making it is that, unlike Adu, he seems to have a true support system—his family, primarily, but also Jim Curtin and the rest of the Union apparatus—invested in both protecting him and his success. Adu never had a real network of support and he was allowed to make bad choices and believe his own hype in a way that I don’t think Sullivan will be. That’s still not a guarantee. But it’s a more solid foundation.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    As someone who did make the trip to Subaru Park to see Union 2 play last Sunday (without knowing that Cavan was even going to be in the lineup) I’m going recommend that others who are able to come to Union 2 home games and see Cavan as well as other future Union talent. Union season ticket holders can go to games for free while it is pretty inexpensive for others. I wasn’t the biggest Cavan fan there since his older brother was sitting a couple of rows in front of me for awhile.
    .
    The next home game may be a little challenging for people to get to since it is a week from today at 4pm, but after that, they play at home again on Sunday, April 21 at 3pm.
    .
    Hopefully Cavan will get to play for Union 2 the rest of this season and possibly next as he continues to grow both physically and mentally. In the 40 or so minutes we saw him Sunday, he did show significant ball handling skills which hopefully will continue to develop.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      Correction, Union 2’s next home game is 2 weeks from today (April 11).

      • Lindsey S says:

        As a season ticket holder, I just got an email that they’re offering free tickets to 2 of the games. We are really hoping he plays. My 10yr old is a huge fan of his!

  6. Please Union management Please Listen ………..Get as much as you can while his market value and interest is so high….#1 make sure you get a ton of cash. Also if they want him that badly, demand that they loan the Union first team a quality forward who is not getting playing time. We will definitely need another quality forward Lets not do that again. if Caranza leaves. Get him ASAP. This will make the fan base a lot happier. When we lose somoene like we did with the Aaronsons we got nothing to immediately help the first team.

  7. John P. O'Donnell says:

    My lord what a day. There was a article written in a KC publication much like PSP interviewing Peter Vermes and the rumored coming change maybe as soon as this summer. How teams deal with spending and what they might change. One thing that was talked about hinted at what I believe just played out. If he walked and there was a path, would the Union philosophy change? Would it benefit to go after players who could be world class and get nothing or should they pull back and just start looking for players who might only make the first team and maybe sell to a smaller market where they could turn a profit.
    .
    Needless to say it looks like for the Union this worked out for everyone but in the future that isn’t guaranteed. I remember the Freddy Adu hype and signing with DC United but these are two completely different times. MLS had zero infrastructure back then and selling players to Europe wasn’t really a thought for the league.
    .
    I watched a few of the games Cavan had played in, like the GA Cup and CONCACAF games and he does standout but once again against players who are his peers. Even last week the assist everyone mentions was made possible by to me a more impressive goal scored by Sal Olivas. The Union have a lot of talent in the academy and a philosophy that not all fans love but keeps them competitive.
    .
    I’m not that worried about Cavan going forward as he has a good infrastructure and history around him. The team has shown already they embrace what the players want and proof is just seeing past academy players like the Aaronson’s stopping in during the off-season and back at the stadium.
    .
    Needless to say going forward things changed with this signing. Not just for the player and team but also MLS. If he’s the next Messi or the next Adu or somewhere in between, how big clubs are mining American talent is changing. For a team like the Union would they benefit more if they could get rid of homegrown territories? He signed the richest contract for a homegrown but he also just raised the roof for every player in the future coming through the system. Come summer I think this situation will bring big changes and what Vermes hinted are coming.

    • I would suggest with full respect to long-time PSP commentator John O’Donnell that Cavan Sullivan is not playing against his peers when he is playing for the U17s. They are 2007 and 2008 birth years. Sullivan is a 2009.
      .
      When Sullivan plays U17 ball he is playing UP, at least one level and possibly two.

  8. Phil Lacrotch says:

    “Sullivan is also expected to sign the richest Homegrown deal in MLS history and will play for the Union until he turns 18 — unless “his development surpasses MLS” before then, in which case he’d head to a “City Football Group” team (yuck) somewhere else in Europe while waiting for his 18th birthday.”

    Why “yuck” when mentioning other CFG clubs? Are you trying to imply that Charlotte is better than those clubs when it comes to player development? Going to FC Girona (3rd place in La Liga and potential future UCL participant) has got to be better than Charlotte for a young player. Also, getting in the CFG system means being trained to play in CFG style which will only benefit a young player if they want to eventually play for City.

    • “Yuck” means that I’m personally not a fan of Manchester City or City Football Group and its model of having feeder clubs around the world. I didn’t say a word about Charlotte.

      • Deez Nuggs says:

        I’m a Man City fan (how could you not be? I mean.. PEP), but I am definitely NOT an NYCFC fan. May they rot in the MLS basement for all time.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Deez, Seems pretty easy not to be a fan of a time that breaks the Premier League/UEFA rules as often as Inter Messi breaks MLS rules.

      • Deez Nuggs says:

        But Pep is the best coach in soccer…

  9. Great read as usual! It’s a great thing for the Union. Proves that the academy is finding and producing talent. Makes the organization look like a place the top talent will want to look to go. Makes recruiting talent easier! Are there pitfalls and what ifs?? Sure plenty. If the young player gets injured ( please no!!). Or the instant fame goes to the players head! But the Union seem to have a good track record with young talent and my true hope is that Cavan and Quinn both have long and lucrative careers! Weather in the States or abroad! Their success only helps pave the way for the guys behind them or the U to begin to look like a great pathway for professional success! I’m fine only getting a short while to enjoy the talent from the pipeline. The point is we get to see them first. Best of luck to all who helped make this deal possible. Let’s keep on cranking out the talent. Not all of them will move on! And those guys may become legends in the future!!

  10. Yes very exhilarating story right in our community, for the Union organization this means a lucrative shot in the arm financially. It is all potential but full of tangible possibilities and it all starts somewhere……I would like to know the financial details of the set up as for Cavan it seems to be a good path for him.

  11. Brandon nolan says:

    Plenty have watched him play, to say almost certainly is a big assumption. He was the in the Adidas cup last year, I personally watched it.

  12. paulcontinuum22 says:

    As with every kid who’s about to enter MLS, I say this; he’s Freddy Adu until he’s not. Check on him in 5 years and hope his transition is a peaceful one.

  13. Gruncle Bob says:

    I think it is reasonable to try to temper our expectations, but regardless of what we do the pressure is there. A youth cannot sign with a European super club and not have enormous pressure and the weight of expectations. I think Cavan Sullivan will be up to the task, and it will be fun to see him continue to improve. My prediction is that CS will be MLS starter quality when he is 17. I’m not saying that JC will start him, but that he will be good enough to start in MLS at 17.
    .
    Any criticism of the U on this deal is just plain idiocy. The U had no leverage at all. They had no way of stopping CS from joining a European academy, and if that had happened they would get nothing. I think the deal happened because CS (and his family) wanted to stay in Philly. The entire U organization deserve great praise for creating such a positive environment that allowed this to happen.

    • A gentle and fairly unimportant correction, Gruncle Bob.
      .
      Because of work that Tommy Wilson helped perform, they no longer would get nothing. There is now a system of some compensation required when a foreign club signs away an amateur from an MLS academy.
      .
      I do not remember whether the rule applies to non-MLS Academies.
      .
      MLS Academies are not yet rated as highly as the best European ones. They are rated more highly that run-of-the-mill ones around the world.

  14. The term is “wunderkind” 😉

    Great article and what an exciting time for the team and the Sullivan family. (Regardless of where it all goes)

  15. “He was born just two months before the Philly Soccer Page.”
    love that bit, Peter.

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