National Writer: Charles Boehm

Philadelphia Union introduce "generational talent" Cavan Sullivan

Cavan Sullivan featured

Just how good is Cavan Sullivan, the 14-year-old phenom who just signed a groundbreaking, highly-anticipated homegrown deal with the Philadelphia Union?

Union head coach Jim Curtin used a more detailed version of the familiar sporting truism ‘ball don’t lie’ as he sat alongside the teenager at Thursday’s introductory press conference, harking back to Sullivan’s early moments in a first-team practice.

"This game tells the truth at all levels," said Curtin. "Whatever age you are, when a practice starts and guys give you the ball, that's the ultimate sign of respect. And within 10 seconds into the first training session, they gave him the ball. That’s probably the simplest way I could put it. And they gave him the ball more and more as the session went on."

Union II head coach Marlon LeBlanc, who gave Sullivan his MLS NEXT Pro debut earlier this year, is a veteran presence in Philly’s system who knows Cavan, and really his entire family, quite well at this point. He, too, did not hold back in his praise on the youngster’s big day.

"What sets Cav apart in a lot of ways is really his mentality. He will come at you five times and you may stop him five times. He's going come at you a sixth time and he'll get you," said LeBlanc. "It's that type of mentality, I think, that sets him apart from his peers in a lot of ways. He's not afraid.

"I was asked a question a while ago before we gave him his [second team] debut: ‘Are you worried about him getting kicked?’ And my answer was, ‘I'm more worried about the guy on the other side who he’s going to go and kick when he goes into the game.’ It's that fearlessness for what he can do with the ball, and then not [be] afraid to go into a first-team training session with Jim. Players respect that."

Massive potential

There’s a good reason you’re reading and hearing significantly more about this particular academy kid than a typical promotion to an MLS contract. Cavan, the younger brother of Union mainstay Quinn Sullivan, is already that good at this tender age, with a projected trajectory that had many of the biggest teams on the planet closely monitoring him since he was 12 or so.

"Cavan is a generational talent," Curtin emphasized, embracing the magnitude of that term. "That is not the opinion of just the Philadelphia Union – that is globally, through scouts, through clubs, all over the world."

Union sporting director Ernst Tanner has unearthed a healthy list of future stars in his long career, and compared the younger Sullivan to Liverpool’s Hungarian dynamo Dominik Szoboszlai in both circumstances and ability.

"I would say pretty comparable and the more famous example is when I fetched Dominik Szoboszlai for Salzburg. He was also 14 years of age basically when we agreed on a deal and, at that time, what he showed was also amazing, and we could sign him with 16, but we had a pre-agreement with his father and the agency at that time," he said.

"That's probably the best practice example. I would say Cavan, in my eyes, is certainly amongst the top three talents I have seen in my 30-year range so far."

Philadelphia start

The fact Sullivan and his family have chosen to stay with his hometown club for the first steps of that journey is a coup for the Union and MLS at large. It’s simultaneously a compliment to the body of work the club has amassed over the past decade of building and sustaining what many consider – with respect to very formidable counterparts at FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and elsewhere – the top youth development system in the league.

"The Union means almost everything to me. It's my club," said Sullivan, sporting a suit and close-cropped, bleached-blond hairstyle that hinted at his confidence on the field. "Watching Quinn on the sidelines of his games, and I've just been in and around the club since I was a little kid.

"This is my home and it's an honor to sign here for my first professional contract, but it means a lot that they see the talent in me at such a young age and I want to prove myself and work for this club and this city and all these fans."

Philly’s leadership want to keep the creative midfielder grounded and minimize the noise of the inevitable hype machine that has already cranked up: "Cavan is 14. His job here will be to be a kid, and play and reach his full potential, and our job here is to create an environment where he can thrive," said Curtin.

But those involved with getting this deal done have emphasized how enormous Sullivan’s potential is, breaking new ground in how prospects like him are nurtured and signed. He also holds a European passport via his family heritage, which opened the possibility of moving across the Atlantic as early as age 16.

"I think it was even two years ago when we checked the legal situation for the first time, as we knew that Cavan is a target from the clubs regarding his German citizenship, and that he could go over to Germany when he's 16, and that's basically what we tried to avoid," explained Tanner.

"We needed to go via the league as well, because homegrown deals are more or less standardized. And if you do something out of the line and unexpected, then you wouldn't have an approval from the league. So the first formal offer, which was approved from the league, was just not good enough, and we needed to intensify this. And finally, we got the highest homegrown deal ever, which is basically not a problem for everybody, as we are happy to do it. It's also a great sign for the commitment of our club to our youth development."

Here and now

The Athletic has reported the wages in Sullivan’s contract are several times the going rate for blue-chip homegrown signings, and that it even eclipses the hefty amounts involved in Freddy Adu’s paradigm-shifting arrival on the scene in 2004.

There’s rich symbolism in the fact new history is being made 20 years later, and with so much more of a complete pathway and support system, at multiple levels, to help ensure Sullivan fulfills his promise to an extent Adu could not.

That’s a big part of why nobody is promising specifics about when Sullivan, who is already a key contributor on Union II, will make his MLS debut or become a first-team regular. Curtin, though, revealed those prospects are "a lot closer than people may realize" – and the club has noted that if Sullivan appears on or before July 29, he will become the youngest debutant in league history.

The long-term? It will unfold in due course.

"This game, it will tell us when the next move comes. That could be in a year, that could be in two years, that could be in three years. Whatever it might be, he’s going to play at the very highest level that this sport has," said Philly’s longtime, native-son coach.

"Right now we think this is the best environment for him to play, in a place where we have full belief in him, he has a great support system, he has his family here, he has a brother in the locker room that can show him the way. We have a pretty good identity as a club that has a good, experienced group that will also help a young player reach their maximum."