SEATTLE — There’s scarcely been a time in Andi Sullivan’s career when she didn’t feel like the eager young achiever amongst veterans. Throughout her club history with Bethesda SC and then McLean, she always played up a year. She was the youngest player on the roster during the U17 World Cup in 2012. And during U20 CONCACAF qualifying in January, she was the only high school player on the team.
Suddenly, at 18, Sullivan is finally playing the role of the grizzled vet. U20 coach Michelle French’s World Cup roster, which she released July 17, is undeniably young. It features six players who’ve yet to start college, which includes 16-year-old midfielder Mallory Pugh, the youngest U.S. player on the roster and one of the youngest players ever to be called into the tournament. Pugh begins her junior year in high school just weeks after the World Cup.
The team is currently wrapping up its final camp in Seattle before beginning the World Cup in Canada on Aug. 5, and French’s young roster casts Sullivan, once a wide-eyed ingenue, as one of its key clubhouse figureheads.
“I was definitely intimidated at first when I was one of the only high schoolers with a bunch of college players,” said Sullivan, who was handed the role of co-captain thanks in part to her 15 caps and three goals. “But I’ve always kind of been the youngest throughout my club experiences and even when I was on the U17 cycle, I was the youngest player there. It’s something I’ve been used to. But the girls we have make everyone feel welcome. We have some players even younger than I am, and they totally fit right in.”
Sullivan isn’t the only player heading directly into a college camp after the World Cup. Midfielder Carlyn Baldwin, who was firmly in the U18 pool as recently as February, starts up at Tennessee in the fall, while third-string keeper Rose Chandler begins her journey with U20 teammate Brittney Basinger at Penn State. Taylor Racioppi (Duke) and Kaleigh Riehl (Penn State) have a year left of high school, while Pugh, who recently committed to UCLA, is the team’s lone 2016.
French insists the learning curve for the team’s deep stable of pre-college talent has been negligible.
“The reason they’re here is because they’ve already excelled in their age group and they’ve been successful when they’ve come into camp,” French said of the pre-college contingent. “I think the only learning curve they have is the speed of play, because most of them, if they’re younger they’re coming from club. There’s a jump from the club speed of play to college, and then college to the 17s and the 17s to the 20s. But they’re so tactically aware that they’re able to make that adjustment after the first couple training sessions.”
The only certainty about Sullivan’s deployment at the U20 level has been uncertainty. A natural midfielder, she was moved to right back for qualifying in January, where she excelled. She said she’s likely to move back into the midfield for the World Cup, an event made even more likely by Notre Dame midfielder Morgan Andrews’ surprising omission from the final roster. But her versatility and adaptability allow French a trump card at a number of positions should injuries strike.
French said the coaching staff often jokes that Sullivan plays as though “she’s already had two or three years of college under her belt.” With the influx of young players on this team, she might as well have.
“The young jokes used to go to players like (Sullivan), and then we started calling in players like (Pugh), who’s like 14,” said Cari Roccaro, one of two players on the roster to appear in the 2012 U20 World Cup. “I made a joke this morning about a song coming out when I was in seventh grade. Mal was in first grade.”
August promises to be a watershed month in Sullivan’s life. Almost immediately after the World Cup ends, Sullivan ships off to Stanford to begin her college career across the country from her home in Lorton, Virginia. The top-ranked recruit in the 2014 class could well walk onto campus for her first practice with a World Cup trophy in her wake.
“Oh gosh, it’s like two giant phases of your life at the same time, so that’s going to be interesting,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to miss your freshman preseason. That’s a little unnerving, but totally worth it. I’m just going to focus totally on the World Cup, and then go to Stanford and focus on all that when this is done. Stanford’s kind of getting pushed to the side right now, which is interesting, but it’s totally fun.”