“I’m obviously watching the games and being supportive, but I’m also realizing I’m watching as a fan when I was almost there as a player,” Sullivan said. “That’s a hard pill to swallow, but you swallow it and move on.”
Moving on has been especially difficult because two of Sullivan’s Spirit teammates, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh, are also her roommates and are quickly becoming impact players for the U.S. squad. But Sullivan has quieted her own disappointment to fill the role of supportive teammate, roommate and friend, in addition to refining her own game and focusing on her new leadership role with the Spirit.
“We didn’t let it be too sad of a thing, because once it happened, it wasn’t about me anymore,” Sullivan said. “It was about them going and having that journey, so I think we shifted the focus toward them, and that was a good choice.”
The Lorton, Va., native is looking at what comes next rather than “wasting time wallowing.” She said her goal is to lead Washington to its first National Women’s Soccer League championship as a newly minted captain and to improve her performance so she can earn more opportunities with the national team in the future.
Spirit Coach Richie Burke said he recognizes the impact Sullivan makes on the field. When Sullivan texted to inform him she didn’t make the World Cup roster, he responded with excitement that he would have her on the field.
“I think my exact words when she texted me were: ‘Brilliant! I’m glad you’re here,’ ” Burke said.
Sullivan joined her hometown professional team last year as the first pick in the NWSL draft following four decorated seasons at Stanford, which included captaining the team to a national championship her senior year. This year, Sullivan has played every minute for the Spirit, which is first in the league at 5-1-3 after Saturday’s scoreless draw against Houston.
“At the beginning of the season, if we had said that [the championship] was realistically our goal, I think people would have laughed at us, especially considering the season we had last year,” Sullivan said of her team, which finished second to last in 2018. “I think now we’ve really showed up and made a statement. Now people are starting to take us a little more seriously.”
Part of the Spirit’s newfound success can be attributed to the addition of a talented group of rookies, four of whom — defenders Sam Staab and Dorian Bailey and midfielders Jordan DiBiasi and Bayley Feist — started for the shorthanded Spirit on Saturday. Sullivan said she believes the team’s lack of experience is an advantage.
“We’re very young and inexperienced and naive, and it’s working for us,” Sullivan said with a laugh. “We come in and we have a lot of energy, and we’re very willing to learn and be molded because this is a very new group. I think having that youth enables that while still having some veteran players to steer the boat.”
Among the veterans are Sullivan’s co-captains Tori Huster, a midfielder who has been with the Spirit since 2013, and Aubrey Bledsoe, a goalkeeper who joined the team last year. Huster described the leadership dynamic as “organic.”
Sullivan and Bledsoe “lead by example, for sure,” Huster said. “They’re honestly beyond their years, and it’s been a pleasure to work with them through anything we might have to talk about. There hasn’t really been adversity, but when it comes, I know we’ll face it.”
The next challenge the trio will face will be reintegrating the five team members returning from the World Cup. For players such as Cheyna Matthews, who joined Jamaica’s roster for its first World Cup appearance, and Chloe Logarzo and Amy Harrison, who both played for Australia, their return home will be bittersweet. For the two Americans still competing, the journey, while rewarding, will be physically and mentally exhausting.
“I think we’re really going to have to take care of those players and be patient with them,” Sullivan said. “But I think they’re going to be fired up to be back here. We have a great team culture, and that will really help them through that. We’re so proud of how they’ve done, and we’re proud of the ones who are still going."
Sullivan has had a lot to deal with this season, tending to her disappointment and captaining a burgeoning squad while remaining a supportive force for her teammates. But those around her said they have complete faith in her as a player and leader.
“Do I still think she should be in France? Yes, I do,” Burke said. “If she was born somewhere else, she’d be playing in the World Cup right now. But I’m very fortunate to have her here. I’m very fortunate that she is taking the bit between her teeth and is really after it. She wants to win. She’s a winner.”
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