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On a December in the desert in Arizona, the best young players in the United States gathered to compete in MLS Next Fest, an end-of-year tournament for all MLS academies.

The games were lively and packed with scouts, agents and other players — but at last year’s event, one particular pitch would always attract significantly more spectators with their phones out, trying to capture moments of brilliance.

That pitch was wherever 14-year-old Cavan Sullivan was showcasing his talents for Philadelphia Union.

By the time Sullivan turns 18, he may be lining up in City blue.

As The Athletic reported on Wednesday, Premier League giants Manchester City have agreed the terms of a transfer for the left-footed attacking midfielder. Only the final compensation is left to be completely settled.

According to sources briefed on the deal — who, like all those cited in this article, asked to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to speak — City will pay around $2.1million (£1.7m) upfront for Sullivan, who has not yet signed a professional contract. If all bonuses are triggered, the fee could move closer to $5m. Philadelphia will also retain a hefty sell-on clause.

Sullivan may have caused a stir in Arizona, but he first caught City’s eye in Spain last April, when he scored twice for the United States Under-15s against England. Sam Fagbemi, City’s head of academy recruitment, was in attendance for the game in San Pedro del Pinatar, where Sullivan’s left foot and ball control wowed scouts, to go along with a self-confident flair and ruthlessness.

Nearly a year later, Sullivan is ready to sign for the Premier League and European champions, with a pathway to the Etihad Stadium planned as far ahead as it possibly can be right now.

Part of the agreement reached between City and the Union is that Sullivan remains in the States until he turns 18, the earliest possible date that a Premier League club can sign an overseas talent. January 2028 is the earliest transfer window in which Sullivan could make the move.

If he outgrows MLS even by that early stage — another sign of how highly City and the Union rate him — the deal allows that he could move to Girona in Spain or Palermo in Italy, two City Football Group (CFG) clubs, when he’s 16 or 17, as he holds a German passport and can therefore train and play for a European club.

Sullivan had already been training with Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund from the age of 12, but a change in regulations put a stop to that.

City sources caution against hyping up Sullivan too much, not just because of his age but because of other American talents who have been heralded as the next big thing in world football, only to fail to live up to that billing. Still, they believe he could be one of the top talents in the sport.

That is why they have taken the somewhat unusual step — compared to their business in recent years — of signing a foreign player.

And although the mantra in the City academy is that the best learn from the best, given the amount of talent coming through the ranks these days, they never had any concerns about Sullivan failing to embed himself in the coaching framework that has teenagers ready to understand the ideas of Pep Guardiola on day one of training with the first team.

“He will be a first-team MLS player at 15,” one City source says, confident that Sullivan will get plenty of top-level experience before he arrives in Manchester. Sources at the Union believe he’ll earn his first team debut this season. He turns 15 in September.

Last weekend, Sullivan made his debut with Philadelphia’s second team, providing the game-winning assist.

In negotiations over his future, Philly had offered Sullivan a sizable professional contract but it wasn’t initially enough to keep him, given interest from Dortmund, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and City. He agreed to a deal with City when he turned 18 and the plan, initially, was for Sullivan to join Lommel SK at age 16 before going to Manchester.

However, Philadelphia feel his development is much better served with them than in the Belgian second division. After rounds of further talks, all parties ultimately agreed. With the development plan reached, and the pre-arranged transfer to City itself when he turns 18, Sullivan agreed to the biggest homegrown deal in MLS history. It will be his first professional contract.

In MLS, academy players are signed to “homegrown” deals — essentially, professional contracts that, in the salary-capped league, usually do not count against the budget or senior roster.

“If he were to join Lommel,” the source adds, using just one CFG club as an example, “he would be in the first team at 16.”

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A key point in negotiations, aside from the compensation due to Philly, was that the two clubs would continue to work together to ensure Sullivan fulfils his potential. While that is a no-brainer for City, it was never the case that Philly would take the money and run.

In the occasionally contentious discussions, the Union and City compared Sullivan to Kendry Paez, the Ecuador midfielder who signed a deal with Chelsea at 15 years old for about $20million, in terms of his standing in the game. Fellow Chelsea prospect Andrey Santos, who signed from Vasco da Gama for around $22.7million, is considered by City as another example of a top non-European youngster that Premier League clubs are still keen to bring in. Those two had signed professional deals with their clubs, hence the loftier fees.

The Union were prepared to fight for their prized asset. Moreover, they wanted to collaborate with City to continue developing Sullivan so he is in the best possible place when he gets to England one day. The Union would have had minimal incentive to continue developing Sullivan for the next few years until he could leave for Europe at 16 if no deal was agreed past training compensation, and would be left with a bitter taste that could have seen them raise the issue to FIFA over the protection of minors.

City and Philly eventually found common ground. And as negotiations went on this month, he continued his ascent through the Union ranks. Sullivan was elevated to the Union’s second team for MLS pre-season this winter and was among the best players on the field in a friendly against USL Championship side Tampa Bay Rowdies. The USL Championship is the second professional division in America.

“He was running through adult men three times his size in Tampa,” one source said. “That’s real. He’s not fake tough. He’s fearless.”

He is described as having an over-confident air around him at times, given the hype, but sources who have worked with him insist his mentality is “elite”.

Sullivan has three older brothers — Quinn, 20, who is enjoying a breakout season in the Union first team, and twins Ronan and Declan, 16. Their father, Brendan, was an assistant men’s soccer coach at Villanova University under their grandfather, Larry.

Those who know the family say his brothers and parents keep him grounded and will not let his head get too big.

A high-ranking official with the U.S. national team called Cavan Sullivan a “diamond”.

Earlier in pre-season, after picking up a minor injury while with the second team, Sullivan was instructed to completely rest and come back fully healed in two weeks. While he was patient enough not to aggravate the injury, it got to the stage where he had to be involved and so, despite howling winds and pouring rain, he hung around at the side of the pitch and retrieved any loose balls that spilled out of the training drills.

One staff member reminded him that he did not have to do that, especially given the weather, but he was determined to contribute.

Although he has always played well ahead of his age groups — he was called up to the Union’s under-17s a few months after turning 14 — he never returned to his previous age group thinking he was too good to be there.

That is the mentality that those who know Sullivan best rave about, and one of the reasons they, like City, are so confident that he can go right to the top.

It is also why City have made a relatively rare foray back into the world of overseas recruitment. Around a decade ago, as the club began to expand the CFG empire, the plan was to strengthen their academy by spending money on the finest young players from around the world, but over the next five years that changed to a more domestic focus, in part because of the restrictions on signing European players after Brexit.

When City won the FA Youth Cup in 2020 they did so with 10 English players, seven of them from Manchester and its surrounding areas.

City’s vast recruitment operation is essentially split into two parts, with Trevor Todd running the ‘Junior Academy’ to bring in players up to the age of 12, and Fagbemi, who spotted Sullivan in Spain, responsible for teenage signings.

Despite a period of change in the City academy following the departure of three senior figures, Fabgemi, new director Thomas Krucken and key scouting figures Carl Walker and Alan Watson, continue to bring in highly rated talent, including 15-year-olds Finlay Gorman from Leeds United and Timeo Whisker from Cardiff City. The Athletic reported on Wednesday that City are also closing in on England youth international Christian McFarlane, who plays for CFG club New York City FC.

Foreign signings have been rare but those they have signed have already shown their quality in the Premier League: Belgian Romeo Lavia was sold to Southampton in 2022 before joining Chelsea for £53m in 2023. Norwegian Oscar Bobb scored a last-minute winner for City at Newcastle United in January and recently signed a long-term contract at the Etihad.

City have seen enough in Sullivan to be optimistic that he is of the required standard, too. The only thing for certain is that there will be even more eyes on him from now on.

(Top photo: Philadelphia Union)



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