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Mature beyond her years, rising USWNT star Sullivan back on track after knee injury

11:00 AM EDT 3/22/18
Andi Sullivan USWNT
Sidelined shortly after her international debut, the No. 1 pick in the NWSL draft has re-established herself as a U.S. national team regular

BOYDS, Md. — Andi Sullivan was in shock. At times, she couldn't help but laugh. Then dismay washed over her.

One of college soccer's most heralded prospects, Sullivan was midway through her junior year at Stanford when she earned her first U.S. national team call-up. The central midfielder debuted with a pair of starts against Switzerland in October 2016. A month later, she earned two more starting assignments for friendlies versus Romania.

Five days after going 90 minutes in a 5-0 win over the Romanians, Sullivan suited up for Stanford against Santa Clara in the NCAA tournament second round. With the match in extra time, Sullivan jumped while trying to block a clearance — and felt her left knee give way as she landed.

Sullivan had torn her anterior cruciate ligament. She's still perplexed by how it happened, considering she had taken all of the necessary precautions to help prevent such an injury. She even found herself chuckling as Stanford teammate Jane Campbell poked fun at her misadventures in navigating crutches.

It wasn't until Sullivan began thinking about her national team status — an ascent abruptly and indefinitely put on hold — that reality hit.

"Obviously it was great to be with the national team and everything, and I was like, 'This is my dream and I'm doing it,' and it was going well and I was so happy," Sullivan told Goal. "One of the parents knew I was sad and they tried to ask me about the national team, and I just broke down crying. They asked, 'How was it?' And I was just like, 'Oh crap, I'm not going to get to go back there for a long time — if ever.'"

Eventually, the whirlwind of emotions settled into more of a steady breeze. There is no good time, of course, for a player to spend nine months on the sidelines while recovering from knee surgery. But Stanford's season ended that night with a 1-0 loss, and the U.S. team's 2017 calendar featured nothing but friendlies.

So Sullivan took solace in the timing. Calm and collected on the ball, she brought that measured persona to her rehabilitation. This wasn't Megan Rapinoe racing back from her torn ACL to compete at the 2016 Olympics — with Stanford's 2017 opener not until mid-August, Sullivan knew there was no pressure to accelerate her recovery.

"If that injury had happened to me earlier on, when I was in high school or even the beginning of college, I would have been a complete mess," Sullivan said. "But I do think it was a good time, and I do think it happened for some sort of reason. Getting to go with the full [national] team and then hurting myself, I knew that I could do it. I was like, 'You've done it once, you can do it again.'"

Sullivan set modest expectations for her senior year at Stanford. Get back in the swing of things and position herself for a healthy start to her professional career. Championships, awards and national team call-ups? That was pipe dream material.

Yet Sullivan returned to the U.S. setup this past fall, earning three caps. In December, she scored in the College Cup final as Stanford claimed the title with a 3-2 win over UCLA. She won the Hermann Trophy a month later as the top player in NCAA women's soccer. It came as no surprise when Sullivan went No. 1 overall to the Washington Spirit in January's NWSL draft.

"Obviously [the injury] was so sad because she was crushing it with the national team and hitting her stride and playing so well," said Rose Lavelle, Sullivan's U.S. and Washington teammate. "But she's such a composed person. I knew she was going to come back just as strong, if not stronger."

The move to Washington represented a homecoming for Sullivan: Born in Hawaii while her father served in the Coast Guard, she moved to Northern Virginia as a toddler and grew up in the D.C. area. Sullivan also played for the Washington Spirit reserves from 2013 to 2015, and her sister Kayley coaches in the club's academy.

With Sullivan now 16 months removed from her knee surgery, she's poised to make her professional debut when the Spirit travel to open their NWSL campaign against the Seattle Reign on Saturday.

"Andi is a very mature player, she has a very good understanding of the game," Spirit coach Jim Gabarra said. "It's almost similar to having a young coach out there. I think she sees the game from a team perspective. A lot of players, especially when they're rookies, they come in and they're so hyper-focused on their own performance and making that leap to the professional level. She's always had kind of an ability to play above her age."

Sullivan feels that respect for the game was seeded at a young age by her mother, Marianna, a longtime youth coach who now serves as the director of coaching at the Bay Area's Mountain View Los Altos Soccer Club. Sullivan remains a student of sport, having spent this winter's Olympics examining the details that separated top athletes in every event.

While a major knee injury can derail a player who leans on physical gifts over soccer IQ, the 22-year-old's mind as a cerebral midfielder orchestrator has remained as sharp as ever.

"I think of the best player as someone who is well rounded, and that's Sunny," Lavelle said. "If there were 10 replica Sunnys, it would be the best team in the world. She's so versatile, but so good at each position that she plays. She's just so composed on the ball, so smart."

U.S. and Spirit forward Mallory Pugh added: "She's just born to be a leader. She's always positive, and on the field one of the best technical midfielders I've played with."

Although Sullivan focused on short-term goals in the aftermath of her injury, the 2019 World Cup in France lingered in the back of her mind. After Sullivan joined Pugh in Washington, the Spirit added fellow U.S. internationals Lavelle, Taylor Smith and Ashley Hatch to construct perhaps the NWSL's most enticing young core.

Within that day-to-day environment, Sullivan sees the pathway to a World Cup goal that, in her darkest moments a year ago, felt too distant to comprehend.

"That's been my dream, but I don't want to get overwhelmed by it," Sullivan said. "I am a firm believer if I do the little things right every day — that means here, in training and the games — that angle will come. I'm not looking at it and getting overwhelmed, I'm just focusing on, 'What am I doing right now to get better?' And that will help prepare me for whatever is next."