Emily Fox’s wish of representing the United States on the sport’s grandest stage was a slow burn. It finally clicked July 5, 2015, her 17th birthday, when Carli Lloyd recorded a hat trick in the World Cup final.
“At that moment — and it wasn’t too long ago — I thought this team is amazing,” the Ashburn native said. “I want to be there.”
Inspired years apart and nurtured in neighboring Northern Virginia counties, Sullivan and Fox landed in the same place: the 2023 U.S. World Cup roster. Both are probable starters for the Group E opener Saturday afternoon (Friday night Eastern time) against Vietnam at Eden Park.
“I try not to go there mentally because I’m trying to focus on the task at hand,” Sullivan said of making the World Cup roster. “But I do think perspective is helpful, especially when things are stressful or you have an off-day. You’re like, ‘Okay, I’m living my dream, and how many people can say that? I’m living my dream at the highest level there is for the game.’”
Ten of the 23 U.S. players have ties to the D.C. area, most as current or former Washington Spirit players. Only two, though, learned the game locally.
Sullivan, 27, is a defensive midfielder who played two seasons at South County High in Fairfax County before concentrating on her club career.
Fox, 25, is a versatile defender (but primarily a right back) who played one season for Stone Bridge High in Loudoun County before turning to FC Virginia full time.
Because of a 2½-year age difference, they did not cross paths in youth soccer. Sullivan then starred at Stanford, where she won the 2017 Hermann Trophy as the nation’s best player. Fox excelled at North Carolina.
Both were the No. 1 overall pick in NWSL drafts: Sullivan by Washington in 2018, Fox by Racing Louisville three years later. (The latter now plays for the North Carolina Courage.)
After Fox’s rookie season, she returned home to Ashburn and trained with Sullivan, who, like her Spirit teammates, lives near the club’s training grounds in Leesburg.
They are among 14 U.S. players preparing for their first World Cup, the most since the 1991 inaugural tournament. Sullivan is hardly an international novice, though; she debuted with the U.S. squad in 2016, while a junior at Stanford, and has been a fixture in the lineup for most of the past two years.
Sullivan’s hold on the starting job was shaken a bit this spring when Julie Ertz, the starter at the 2019 World Cup, returned from maternity leave.
“We’ve always been collaborative, and I’ve learned a lot from her,” Sullivan said. “So I’m just always going to be grateful for her, and I’m grateful to have her back on this team.”
After a 20-month layoff, Ertz has been working herself back to peak fitness and form, leaving Sullivan atop the depth chart.
“She has a bag of tools that are perfect for what we need out of that position,” said veteran defender Kelley O’Hara, Sullivan’s Spirit teammate during the 2021 championship campaign.
Reflecting on Sullivan’s ascent, O’Hara said: “I remember when she first came on this team and being like, ‘This is going to be a really special player for the national team.’ I’m excited she’s at her first World Cup, that I get to be here with her and I get to watch her shine through this whole tournament.”
Sullivan comes from a soccer family. Her mother, Marianna, was a coach and program director at McLean Youth Soccer before working at an elite youth club in Northern California.
Sullivan’s older sister, Kayley, is the University of Miami’s director of soccer operations after playing at George Washington and coaching the Spirit’s development academy.
Sullivan remembers being with her family watching Marta, at 17, in her first World Cup, in 2003 at RFK Stadium. This summer, while Sullivan is at her first, the Brazilian superstar will appear in her sixth and final tournament.
Fox said she wasn’t surrounded by soccer at home.
“If I wanted to play soccer, I really had to go after it,” she said. “I had to find the channels and record on the DVR the games I couldn’t see when I was at school. So it was a little bit different. I fell in love with soccer and had to push to really start watching games and start watching the national team.”
In Fox’s only season of high school soccer, she was a freshman forward on a Stone Bridge team that advance to the Virginia Class 5A final. She was named to The Washington Post’s All-Met second team.
Fox’s UNC exploits earned an invitation to the national team in 2018, but it wasn’t until 2022 when she gained regular assignments — as both a left back and right back. The return of 2019 World Cup left back Crystal Dunn from maternity leave pushed Fox to the right side, though her versatility allows Coach Vlatko Andonovski to adjust the lineup from game to game or even during a match.
Both Sullivan and Fox will have family attending the World Cup. Sullivan is hopeful her husband will make it, too: Drew Skundrich, a D.C. United midfielder in 2021-22, is in the middle of his season with the second-division Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
Hopefully, she said, the club will allow him to travel to Oceania late in the tournament.
“I think his coach understands,” she said, smiling, “this is kind of a big deal.”