After stint with national team, Andi Sullivan ready to lead Stanford's push to College Cup
It is not so much that Andi Sullivan was born to lead as that she is simply at her best among people.
And that may be what makes the charismatic rising star such an easy person to follow.
Even in a week that saw one player break a record with a goal 49 seconds after she debuted for the United States women's national team, only for a teammate to then improve on that mark in another debut days later, no one made a better first impression at soccer's highest level than Sullivan.
She wasn't among the goal scorers for the United States in a pair of wins over Switzerland and didn't get the highlight moment that went to record-setters Lynn Williams and Kealia Ohai. But she looked at home while starting twice in the midfield and playing all but 15 minutes in her first two appearances for the national team. So comfortable that while she is still only 20 years old and a junior at Stanford, it is easy to imagine it could be her home for years to come.
Positive reviews gave the enthusiasm official sanction.
"It's her qualities as a player and her profile that makes me say 'Wow, this kid can play,' " U.S. coach Jill Ellis said after Sullivan's debut on Oct. 19. "Without hardly any training, you wouldn't have known that was her first cap. Her best asset is just her poise on the ball and her decision making."
What made the week possible is the same thing that makes Sullivan one of the frontrunners for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer's premier individual award, as she returns to a Cardinal team ranked third in the nation and eyeing a College Cup that will be held in their backyard in San Jose.
Sullivan already possesses a world-class ability to read people and situations, whether as captain of her college team or the youngest player on a national team.
That isn't an easy juggling act, to be as comfortable one week partnering standout freshman Tierna Davidson in Stanford's midfield as slipping passes to Carli Lloyd for the United States the next week. One role calls for leadership, the other demands deference. Success in either requires realizing as much.
Tall, quick, agile and deft with the ball, Sullivan does a lot of things well. She doesn't do anything better than understand her surroundings.
"I've played so much soccer with so many different groups of people," Sullivan said a few days prior to her time with the national team. "So there is that personality where you have to be able to meet someone and connect with them and be comfortable communicating with them right off the bat, even though you don't really know anything about each other except their name. You have to find this connection, you have to be relatable and you have to be approachable."
Without her leadership skills, she's still a great player, absolutely a great player, but you add that intangible kind of thing and she's truly remarkable.Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe
She has been developing those skills literally her entire life. The daughter of parents who met at the Coast Guard Academy and the youngest of four children, she grew up figuring out how to interact with people. Failure to do so meant missing out on the shifting sibling alliances that so often govern blame and reward in such settings -- and while her father was no longer in the Coast Guard by the time she was growing up, the house could never be too clean. But more than intra-sibling politics, she spent those years learning, often on the same soccer fields as her brother Keegan or sister Kayley, who later played at George Washington.
"When you're around a bunch of people all the time, and around people who are older, you take on a role where you take a step back and you listen and you observe," Sullivan said. "Then when you're familiar with those experiences in an observer fashion, it becomes easier to implement when you're in a scenario when no one else steps up or you know someone needs to step up."
This is not all some theoretical exercise. People think enough of Sullivan's leadership ability in the real world that she captained the under-20 national team in World Cup qualifying while the youngest player on the roster in 2014, a high schooler among collegians. She wasn't the captain of the national team that competed two years earlier in the U-17 World Cup, but she was a starter as the youngest player on that roster.
"Without her leadership skills, she's still a great player, absolutely a great player, but you add that intangible kind of thing and she's truly remarkable," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "Honestly, I think a majority of the players we bring in are leaders at their [previous] level. Who is going to emerge as a leader at the highest level here in college, that's difficult to determine."
For the Cardinal, unbeaten in games in which they had the services of both Sullivan and goalkeeper Jane Campbell, also a recent U.S. call-up, the hope is that freeing college soccer's best leader to lead the attack will produce the program's second NCAA championship.
On the national team this past week, as in her first two seasons at Stanford, Sullivan played the role of the No. 6, or holding midfielder. It is the No. 6 who sets in motion the buildup that leads to a goal, and it is the same player responsible for defusing the product of any buildup threatening her goal. But it is also a subtle role, one in which it can be more difficult to control an individual game at the college level, with its wider variation of skill among those the No. 6 influences.
Fortunately the Cardinal found themselves with the luxury of options after adding Davidson, a local product from Menlo Park, California, who also played the No. 6 growing up and spent at least the last couple years studying Sullivan.
"I just really admired how she made it seem so simple and so effortless," Davidson said. "When I would watch her, I'd say that's how I want to play."
In asking Sullivan to step out of her comfort zone and play the more attacking role of a traditional No. 8 midfielder (her six goals and five assists in 14 games are already career highs), while at the same time developing a chemistry with Davidson and trusting the freshman to handle matters behind her, Stanford is arguably making use of her best asset.
The two players are similar enough in style and personality that Ratcliffe said he would believe they are sisters if he didn't know them. Sullivan acknowledged that perception, that they think about soccer in a similar way, but posited that the comparison had its limits.
"She's got herself together a little bit more than I do," Sullivan said.
That isn't quite how Davidson sees it, expressing the hope she might eventually move as easily among an entire roster of personalities as Sullivan.
"I really like her appreciation for her teammates," Davidson said. "I try to do that as well because I really think that's a key component to having a team that will work together for a goal, is if everyone appreciates each other and the roles that they have on and off the field. I try to embody a lot of what she does."
The fate of any leader, of course, is measured by results. The U-20 team Sullivan captained didn't make it out of the quarterfinals in the World Cup. The U-17 team didn't make it out of the group in its World Cup. A year ago, Stanford saw its season end a game shy of the College Cup after a penalty shootout exit at home against Duke; Sullivan one of those whose shot didn't find the back of the net. And now her performances for her country over the past week have raised the stakes that much more. Never mind that only a handful of the players she started alongside for the U.S. won NCAA titles as collegians, that is the expectation.
But it's difficult to think of anyone you'd rather have under the weight of expectations than someone who can so eloquently explain the pitfalls of responsibility.
"I think the hardest thing, leadership-wise, is that so many people are looking to you when things get tough," Sullivan said. "Sometimes when you are struggling yourself -- but other people are still looking toward you -- those are the times you have to rise. Every player goes through ups and downs as an individual, and I've definitely had my fair share of downs. And I think it's hard when you don't want to show other people that you're down, but it's also an effort to hide it. A lot of times I've failed at that, and I think only now is when I'm starting to get a better handle on that. ...
"People think leadership is natural, but I think it's also practice."
Practice that comes with every game she plays, no matter the surroundings.