Why Cavan Sullivan, hyped as the world’s best 14-year-old soccer player, chose to turn pro with the Union

Cavan Sullivan takes a math test during class at the YSC Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. The Academy is a high school that is exclusively for players in the Philadelphia Union’s soccer academy. (Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — Cavan Sullivan hadn’t even played a second of professional soccer when the world started crowning him as the game’s best 14-year-old prospect.

Not just better than anyone in Union history, or MLS history, or U.S. national team history. Better than anyone from the entire planet: France, Brazil, England, Argentina and the rest of soccer’s royalty.


Superpower teams beat a path to the Sullivans’ door, led by reigning English Premier League and UEFA Champions League titleholders Manchester City. So did Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, which has perhaps the sport’s best track record of developing young stars, and other Bundesliga clubs.

Man City won the family’s affection, and in a few years, it will be Cavan’s new home. But before then, the precocious attacking midfielder is starting his pro career at the club where he has grown up: the Union.

Sullivan has signed a first-team contract with his hometown club. The plan is for him to play at Subaru Park until he’s 18, then head to Manchester and try to earn stardom in the Premier League. When the time comes, City will pay up to $5 million in the deal.

Exactly when he’ll make his Union first-team debut remains to be seen. It could be later this year during the Leagues Cup tournament if all goes right. For now, he’ll play with the reserve team, and that’s fine. What matters most is that he’s here.

“It means everything,” Sullivan told The Philadelphia Inquirer in an exclusive interview, with his parents by his side. “This is the best city in my eyes, in terms of just the fans, the culture, the energy that the fans bring and the city brings. I wouldn’t want to start anywhere else.”

Deep Philadelphia roots

The family part is no overstatement. Multiple generations of Sullivans have lived in Bridesburg, with the latest ones residing in Norristown to accommodate life with four kids. As Cavan’s father, Brendan, put it, “We’re 191,” referring to the first three digits of Philadelphia zip codes.

“I was thrilled with Cav’s decision to decide to start his career here, play with his brother, drive in every day with his brother, live in the house for a couple more years,” Brendan Sullivan said. “19124, 19137, those were our zip codes [in the city]. We were bought in through birthright, for better or for worse.”

Cavan’s mother, Heike, also played a key role, fueled by her own soccer background. The veteran Ballard Spahr attorney captained Penn’s women’s soccer team in 1994 and ‘95, while Brendan played for the Quakers’ men. At Temple’s law school, she researched issues with MLS’s corporate structure. Her Ballard colleagues have included John Langel, the longtime lawyer for the U.S. women’s players union.

Heike became the family’s point person, declining comment even to people she knows well — and even as international journalists made claims she knew were false.

“For me, that was one of the most bizarre things: to see the things in the news that were stated as though they were certain, and go, ‘That ain’t true,’ ” she said. “It’s just not a world I live in. So yeah, it was strange.”

And she made sure it never became more than that.

“It wasn’t upsetting,” she said. “It’s just sort of like, ‘Wow, first of all, some of the details that are right, how are they out there? And then some of the details that are just completely wrong, how and why are they out there?’ … It’s not worth getting upset about, but it was fascinating to watch this news come out.”

How close disaster came

For many months, the dream of Sullivan playing for the Union was on the cusp of becoming a nightmare. Scouts, journalists, and even many people at the Union were convinced that Cavan would spurn the club he’s been part of since elementary school.

And where his oldest brother, Quinn, plays for the first team.

And where their other brothers, Ronan and Declan, are in the youth academy.

And where Brendan teaches history at the team’s high school in Chester for elite soccer prospects.

And where the manager, Jim Curtin, played collegiately at Villanova for a coaching staff that had Brendan as an assistant and his father, Larry Sullivan, as head coach.

It was all heading for disaster — until suddenly, in late March, it wasn’t. That’s when word first got out that Cavan was going to turn pro here.

After a few more weeks, all the paperwork finally got over the line.

“We feel as if this is the best possible deal for Cavan, for our family, for Philadelphia,” Brendan said. “It really is a win-win-win.”

How close did it come to not happening?

“It just took a lot of back and forth, I’m not going to lie,” Brendan said. “It was long, it was protracted. In the early stages, this probably wasn’t going to get done. But it did get done.”

The decisive intervention

When Cavan turns 16 in September 2025, that same month will mark 25 years since the start of Jim Curtin’s senior season at Villanova. It was also when Brendan joined his father’s coaching staff there.

Their histories have been intertwined ever since, and now there’s a new chapter. The move that broke months of stalemate between the Sullivans and the Union came when Curtin called his old coach.

“We really think a lot of credit goes to Jim, if I’m being honest,” Brendan said. “For pushing this along, coming in at the 11th hour and saying, ‘Let’s do it. We think he’s ready.’ ”

That message, Sullivan said, “was a big, big point for us.” And a day after he received it, Union principal owner Jay Sugarman received it, and called Brendan Sullivan to set up a meeting.

“That’s where it really started to look like, hey, this could work,” Sullivan said. “And it doesn’t happen without Jim.”

Had that last push failed, the Sullivan family would have waited until Cavan turns 16, the earliest he could join a team in the European Union. He’d have turned pro with one of Manchester City’s feeder teams, Lommel SK of Belgium’s second division. And the Union’s years of investment in Cavan would have gone up in smoke.

But now there’s no need to worry, thanks to the former student who’s now the master of the local soccer scene.

“At times he was probably in the dark, at times we were in the dark,” Brendan Sullivan said, “but he and I had a couple of really good conversations. And when I say he pushed it along, he pushed it along. A lot of the credit, Jim deserves.”

The capstone of a foundation

Cavan Sullivan is the 24th player in the Union’s 15-year history to rise from the youth ranks to the pros. It’s an exceptional record, and it is made even more so by the names involved.

Brenden and Paxten Aaronson, Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty lead the ranks of renowned alumni. Jack McGlynn, Nathan Harriel, Quinn Sullivan and David Vazquez highlight the current team. Steffen and Christian Pulisic played for Union youth teams as children before earning fame elsewhere.

They built the foundation on which Cavan Sullivan now stands. And they show the Union know how to handle young stars on and off the field.

“It’s an honor that they look at me the way they do, and that they recognize the abilities that I have,” Cavan said. “And I feel safe in their hands, just by looking at their track record and the pipeline. Because if they keep pumping out players going to Europe, it’s just like, I know that this club has what it takes to develop me and get to where I want to be.”

As Brendan spoke on the subject, he knew the weight his remarks would carry.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the Sullivans as a whole, all Sullivans, feel a certain level of responsibility to that foundation, and a huge debt of gratitude, specifically to the Graham family,” he said, referring to longtime academy bankrollers Richie and Steve Graham.

“How generous they’ve been to all soccer players,” Brendan continued, “but they’ve been extremely generous to the Sullivans. So we felt a responsibility, and we had hoped beyond hope that something could get done with Philadelphia because of that.”

A mountain to scale

The gleam of Manchester City’s sky-blue jerseys hides uncomfortable truths for players who wear it.

Though City Football Group owns feeder teams around the world — including MLS’s New York City FC, one of the Union’s biggest rivals — very few players have risen all the way through the pipeline. Far more have fallen down it instead, such as Downingtown-born U.S. national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

City also isn’t known for promoting its own young talent. Star midfielder Phil Foden, as famous as he is, is the exception. The players who surround him and thrill audiences worldwide have mostly been bought, and mostly for huge sums: Erling Haaland, Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and so on.

Not only must Sullivan try to do what no American has ever done in England, but he must buck City’s own history.

“I’m humble enough to realize that it is going to be a challenge, it is going to be hard — I mean, the greatest club in the world, arguably,” said Cavan, who is still growing at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds. “So I know there’s going to be spots I’m going to have to fight for throughout the way. But I’m also confident enough to say I believe I can do this. I do trust my abilities.”

He trusts his work ethic, too.

“As long as I continue to work and develop my game,” he said, “I would say at the rate I’m doing it now, I think I’ll be all right.”

Brendan admitted there was a time when they weren’t sure City was the right fit. They first visited Dortmund in September 2020, and kept up relations along the way.

“We have met some great people at Dortmund over the years,” he said. “They were amazing to us and really great people. We always thought Dortmund would probably be a great fit. It’s probably the most tested, obviously, and with great success.”

Heike made pro-and-con lists for every potential club, and made sure he went through every step.

“He hated the exercise,” she said. “I’m a mom, right?”

Why Manchester City won

When the time came for the ultimate decision, the parents let their son make it. And his reflection on that brought a moment to remember that he really is still just 14.

“I mean, just the name Man City pops out to almost every kid, and they’re the most fun team to watch in the world right now,” Cavan said, the stars clearly shining in his eyes. “Especially for myself, I look up to and use players like Bernardo Silva and Foden, to try and play like them. It’s just always been a dream of mine to also play in the Premier League, and with the plan the Union and the City group created to get there at 18 — which is a young age — that just seemed ideal for me.”

Both parents were convinced not just by City’s sizzle, but by its substance.

“The level of detail that Man City went down to in terms of the plan, the development, all the different variations and pivot points at which things could change, could toggle into something else,” Brendan said, “the level of scouting they did on Cavan, the level of scouting they did against other people in other countries all over, it was ridiculous. … We truly had to look at each other and be like, ‘This can’t be real, that they did this amount.’ ”

He named academy head of recruitment Samuel Fagbeni and City Football Group’s director of football transactions Carlos “Rafi” Moersen (who lived in the U.S. for many years) as particularly influential.

“Obviously it’s a business, everybody’s trying to make money, but it felt at least to me like there was a desire to develop him,” Heike added. “I know at the end of the day there’s money in that, too, but I felt like at the end, egos got out of the way.”

That included working with the Union to a surprising degree.

“These guys, their willingness to cooperate, for us only highlighted more how interested they were in Cavan, how much they believe in him, because it is so much work,” Brendan said. “And [for] the Union to say, ‘Look, we’re also willing to discuss this. We think we can sit at the table and create something that’s new.’ … Yeah, I am surprised, because it doesn’t exist, this sort of cooperation.”

The Union’s secret

It was not a given that City would agree to the Sullivans’ desire that Cavan start his pro career with the Union.

“He couldn’t be any happier than to start here, rather than some team in Belgium or Spain or Italy,” Brendan said. “It says a lot about the Union that Manchester City is willing to cooperate and sit at the table, and say, ‘Look, we think that this is the best place for him to start at this point.’ ”

It sure does. The more time you spend in the soccer world, the more cynical you get. But the more time you spend around the Union, the more you see how truly extraordinary they are at youth development.

It’s not just the quantity, the names on the back, and the names on the front of the European clubs’ jerseys those famed alumni now wear. It’s that the Union have created a litany of creative, skilled, attacking players — the kind of players it was long assumed Americans could not be.

When Richie Graham opened YSC Academy 11 years ago, he dreamed of beating that assumption. Today, the dream is as close as ever to coming true. Cavan Sullivan is the seventh creative midfielder to reach the Union’s first team in the last six years.

“Richie Graham would tell you it’s culture. It’s what he stands on, it’s what he’s built it on,” Brendan Sullivan said. “It’s on some level, really Jim’s culture. But from the ownership down, it’s really been a culture of trying to stand on the group that came before you.”

And he sees it every day in his history classroom.

“Every kid in the building wants to star here. … They couldn’t be bought-in more,” he said, “All the messaging today, I can’t see why a kid wouldn’t want to sign here.”

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