On Cavan Sullivan

Photo @PhilaUnionII

According to Tom Bogert and Sam Lee of The Athletic, the Philadelphia Union and Manchester City have agreed on transfer terms to move 14 ½-year-old Union Academy amateur Cavan Sullivan to Manchester when he turns 18. In a follow-up, they say the initial transfer fee may be $2.1 million. They further say that Sullivan and the Union are finalizing an MLS Homegrown contract that is said to be “the richest in MLS history.”

Facts and assumptions summarized

A homegrown contract with the Union would make Sullivan eligible to appear for the first team.

He has already appeared for the organization’s professional second team, providing the assist on the game-winning goal in his March 24 debut against New England Revolution II (he is the blond in the photo pointing at game-winner Sal Olivas). Less heavily emphasized was that earlier in the match, the mid-teenager was also knocked flat by his 20-something New England II marker.

Citing a single source with fuller detail after the initial report by Bogert and Lee, Jonathan Tannenwald of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributes these points:

  • There will be two separate contracts, a bilateral one between the Philadelphia Union and Manchester City and a trilateral one between Major League Soccer, the Philadelphia Union, and Cavan Sullivan.
  • Both are in the process of being determined, but Tannenwald’s source expects them to be completed.
  • Sullivan’s contract with MLS and Philly is expected to be “the richest for any MLS academy product in league history.”
  • Tannewald provides less detail of the Union’s deal with Manchester. He says it is to be heavy with add-ons, to contain a sell-on clause, and to include a provision that if Sullivan’s development surpasses MLS’s level, he will move to Europe within City Group’s stable of teams.
  • He also provides an important technical clarification. Because Sullivan’s mother makes her son eligible for a German passport, he is allowed to work within the EU at age 16. However, because Great Britain recently left the EU (Brexit), he cannot work there until he turns 18.

The Inquirer’s soccer writer also identifies Sullivan’s predecessor for the highest initial MLS annualized homegrown salary. According to the MLS Player’s Association Salary Guide, homegrown New York Red Bull teenager Julian Hall earned $167,685 in 2023. That exceeds 2023’s supplemental reserve roster salary minimum by $100,325. Almost certainly the excess is achieved via the Homegrown Player Subsidy rule. Here is a link to the 2024 Roster Rules and Regulations summary available to the general public (these are not the actual rules).

By publishing the Hall information, Tannenwald implies that Sullivan’s 2024 homegrown contract might be similar. If so, and if PSP calculates the 2024 homegrown subsidy’s maximum correctly (salary limits increase annually under the current CBA), Sullivan’s first team contract could match or be less than $214,716.

The fact that Tannenwald does not mention the U22 player initiative suggests it probably does not apply to Sullivan. The language of that rule (see link above) indicates  that homegrown players are eligible to be included in it.


All preliminary advance clues had indicated Sullivan would leave the Union’s Academy for free and go directly into Manchester City’s system immediately upon becoming eligible at age 16. Tannenwald, the reporter most closely following the story, calls the change of direction a “miracle.”

Sullivan makes several gains by signing with the Union now instead of City Group:

  • He begins to earn money a year and a half earlier.
  • He turns pro now, achieving something he has said to be a personal goal.
  • He ensures that should he develop beyond the capacity of the Union organization to improve his play, he will move quickly to a better situation without stagnating.
  • He may not have to leave home, school, teammates, and friends as quickly.

Here are the gains made by the other parties:

  • Manchester City establishes some degree of control over a player it wants a year and a half earlier than it otherwise could, pre-empting further competition.
  • Philadelphia realizes a return on its investment in the player.
  • More importantly, Philadelphia establishes its credibility as a player-development source for a giant of world soccer.
  • If Sullivan develops as anticipated and transitions smoothly and successfully into City Group’s array of clubs, it will gain global attention by other players, clubs, and leagues.

Importance: Compare Messi to Sullivan

“Inter Messi CF,” so-called, generated and generates worldwide fan attention right now. MLS instantly gained credibility, sold tickets, and increased viewership, but how long will the Messi effect endure? He is 37. Luis Suarez is older, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are comparable. And the pace of Miami’s schedule is intense.

If Cavan Sullivan develops into a top-class soccer player, Major League Soccer will gain further credibility as a selling league, which is one of its stated long-term goals.

By the 2030 World Cup, which phenomenon will seem more important?

A final mystery

How will Philadelphia and Manchester determine whether Sullivan’s development needs have surpassed MLS’s level?

The parties must have hammered out measurable, objective criteria to provide a framework circumscribing such conversations — no doubt there will be an “eyeball” component as well. However, metrics must provide both the triggers and parameters for the conversation.

The metrics are quite likely proprietary. The public will have little or no idea what they may be. We suspect Ernst Tanner’s record and reputation helped City Group to trust making such an agreement. In a more conventional, comparable business deal, each side might expect the other to provide surety for proper conduct.

If evaluating developmental thresholds within the deal succeeds, it might set a valuable precedent for similar deals in the future.



  1. Andy Muenz says:

    I have a few questions about the situation (some of which I’m sure we’ll see over the course of time if the answers aren’t currently known, others of which we’ll hopefully never need to learn).
    First and most importantly, will Cavan be able to continue to attend the Union academy or obtain an equivalent education? One thing I don’t think would be good for anyone would be to encourage kids to drop out of school at 14.
    Will his start (i.e. 2024) be primarily with the Union or Union 2? As Tim points out in the article, in addition to showing great ball skills in his Union 2 debut, he was also knocked on his butt on more than one occasion (causing shouts of “He’s literally only a child” at the ref from the Union 2 faithful when nothing was called). I think his development would initially be better served with Union 2
    Who is taking what risks in the case of injury, especially, if he transfers to Europe at 16 or 17? Would the Union still receive some or all of the transfer fee from Manchester City?

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      Many young players, I understand, continue their education with tutors and individual instruction. Some pursue college degrees while they play professionally.

  2. Tim Jones says:

    Cavan remains a student at YSC Academy right now. I asked him some basic academic questions about his program after the New England II debut match.
    Given the academy’s well developed proficiency with on-line teaching, and the fact that his father is on their faculty (History), I suspect Cavan’s academic future is well in hand

  3. Gruncle Bob says:

    Thank you for the insight. It nice that the deal works for the U, but even better that it seems to work much better for CS and family than moving to Europe at age 16.
    I think the “development needs” picture is likely to be obvious. If CS is performing in the top 10 in MLS in goal creations, for example, he likely would benefit from a higher level of competition. If he’s not top 10, it’s a different conversation. I would also guess that CS and family’s views would be part of the process too.

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