Larry Sullivan was with his son, Brendan, upstairs at the family’s Shore vacation place last Saturday when they heard shouting downstairs.
The Union’s game at the Chicago Fire was on TVs on both floors, with the upstairs one a few seconds behind. So Larry figured someone must have scored. And something about the shouting told Brendan it was no ordinary goal.
“I’ll bet you Quinn scored,” Brendan said.
Sure enough, a moment later, there it was on his TV. Larry’s grandson, Quinn Sullivan, hit a bicycle kick into the net for his first professional goal in his first professional start. Sullivan’s mother, Heike, one of the shouters, couldn’t help running upstairs to watch it again.
The story would be cool enough if it stopped there, but there’s more to it. When the telecast cut from players celebrating on the field to the Union’s bench, the camera was on someone Larry Sullivan had coached at Villanova more than 20 years ago: Union manager Jim Curtin.
Curtin knew his player’s breakout moment was a long time coming for one of Philadelphia soccer’s most famous families.
50 years of Sullivan soccer history
The Sullivan family soccer lineage dates to the 1970s, when Larry played at Temple and was coached by the greatest of all local men’s soccer legends, Walter Bahr. Larry Sullivan went on to spend more than 30 years as a college and high school coach in the area, including at St. Joseph’s University, Father Judge High, Villanova, and Camden Catholic High.
Brendan Sullivan played soccer at St. Joseph’s Prep and Penn, where he met his future wife, Heike, and played five years as a pro in U.S. minor leagues. He also coached at Villanova for a while with his father, including Curtin’s senior year.
» READ MORE: Union’s Jim Curtin earns two-year contract extension
Heike Sullivan captained the Quakers’ women’s soccer team in 1994 and 1995, and is now a partner at the Center City law firm Ballard Spahr. While at Temple’s law school, she wrote a law-review piece on whether MLS’ single-entity structure could keep escaping antitrust laws. (Among her sources was future Ballard colleague John Langel, the longtime lawyer for the U.S. women’s national team players union.)
The family tree also includes Union technical director Chris Albright, whose mother is Larry’s sister. Albright’s 14-year playing career included three MLS Cups and berths on the U.S. national team’s 2000 Olympics and 2006 World Cup teams.
Quinn Sullivan is a 17-year-old in his first professional season of a career that could top them all.
“There’s part of me that’s obviously the technical director for the club, and there’s part of me that’s obviously proud of him for the hard work that he’s put in,” Albright said. “I think I do a pretty good job of being able to separate those two things. But in that moment, they were inseparable.”
Quinn Sullivan and his three brothers grew up in Bridesburg, just a few blocks from their grandparents’ home in the same neighborhood. He played youth soccer for the Fishtown Hotspurs at the Shissler Recreation Center, a block from the El tracks and not far from where Albright’s father (and Bahr before him) played for the famed Lighthouse Boys Club.
Sullivan didn’t play on the old cinders where Bahr, Albright, and other Lighthouse legends honed their skills. But he didn’t have a pristine grass pitch, either. Part of the field was the dirt of a baseball diamond.
“The field wasn’t good, but it made you concentrate on your touches more,” Sullivan said. “It made you focus and get your technical level up even higher than it needed to be for the other clubs. And then once you transition out to nice fields, it becomes easier, and you’re a step ahead of the other guys that have grown up on that.”
Choosing the Union over Europe
The Sullivan kids and their parents moved to Norristown when Quinn was in eighth grade to have a shorter commute to the Union’s high school in Wayne. But the memories of everyone being so close are still vivid. Sullivan said his grandfather “would sit there and talk to me for as long as he needed to, just talking over plays that he saw in the game, and my dad would join in.”
This year, he made six late-game cameo appearances before earning his first start, two in the Concacaf Champions League series against Saprissa and four in MLS. The best of them was the Union’s June 24 win over Columbus, where he helped seal a win over the reigning MLS champions.
“I thought he could be a pro,” said Curtin, who has watched Sullivan since those Fishtown days. “Did I think he would be a pro this quickly, and be starting and playing in big MLS games, and meaningful minutes, and playing in Champions League? Probably not.”
His family has been just as impressed.
“I keep telling people it’s just surreal, right?” Heike Sullivan said. “Obviously we’ve supported [him]. We’re a soccer family, but it’s just surreal to see him actually on the field.”
Sullivan has already drawn attention from European teams, including German superpower Borussia Dortmund, which he visited for 10 days last September. Dortmund liked what it saw, and so did he.
“He had a great trip. He really enjoyed it. The academy was amazing,” said Heike Sullivan, who has family in Bonn (about 90 minutes from Dortmund) and Berlin. She and Brendan told Quinn they “believe in letting him make his choices.”
Sullivan said he knew it was “just a matter of time” before he’d fulfill his dream of playing in Europe. But he wanted to start his pro career at his hometown club.
Into the spotlight
“I’m really happy right now with where I am with the Union and how much I’m learning from the older guys like Ale [Bedoya] and Jamiro Monteiro, just about how to play in this league and get used to it,” Sullivan said. “Talking to Ale about his journeys in Europe and stuff that he saw, it’s really nice to know and to have experienced it at a young age, and to know what to expect if that move is to happen.”
In Chicago, Monteiro served up a corner kick 27 minutes after kickoff. The ball landed on the left shoulder of Chicago’s Francisco Calvo and bounced toward Sullivan, who intended to clear space for Cory Burke until he realized it was his moment.
“And then after that,” he said, “it was really just instincts.”
A little luck, too, he conceded. But he knew where those instincts came from: years of hard work and generations of bloodlines in the sport in which he’s now a rising star.
“He’s doing things at 17 that not many kids are capable of handling and doing at the level that he’s doing them at,” Curtin said.
“I’ve been around this game a long time. I don’t get too excited,” Larry Sullivan said. “But I was excited then. ... You don’t dream of that.”