Soccer Meets Fútbol by Jon Arnold

After impressing with Messi watching as spectator, young Union duo preparing to face Messi as player


Jon Arnold - @ArnoldcommaJon

PHILADELPHIA — Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn and their United States U-20 teammates were warmed up and ready for a friendly match when they noticed an unusual commotion. Set for a game against the Argentina U-20 sides coached by former Argentina legend Javier Mascherano, the small crowd gathered was growing with new arrivals.

These arrivals drew the attention of the die-hard fans and family members who had gathered for a March 2022 friendly at the Argentine Football Association’s training center. Led by Lionel Messi, a crew of Argentina senior national team stars filed in, sipping mate and ready to support their former colleague and the players who hope to take their places in the future.

“I just remember seeing him and a bunch of other stars,” Sullivan, a Philadelphia Union forward, told “(Angel) Di Maria was there, which was pretty amazing. As we were walking out, they were finding their seats field-side. I was playing right wing, so I was on the close side to them.

“To think back to that, which isn’t all that long ago, and think that he’d be playing on the same field hopefully is going to be a pretty special moment.”

Sullivan, McGlynn and the Union host Messi’s Inter Miami in a Leagues Cup semifinal Tuesday, with the young Union players this time ready to square off against Messi on the field rather than trying to impress him as a spectator.

It has been just a year and a half since that contest, a 2-2 draw in which Sullivan scored the opening goal and Union academy product Paxten Aaronson notched the second. Yet, plenty has changed.

Messi, Di Maria and Leandro Paredes, who also took in the U-20 friendly, became world champions with Argentina in December 2022. The facility where the game took place was renamed in Messi’s honor in March. Sullivan and McGlynn returned to Argentina to compete in the U-20 World Cup, making it to the quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion Uruguay.

And, notably, Messi joined Inter Miami this summer, making his debut in Leagues Cup and scoring in each match he has played so far with his new squad.


Fans in South Florida and beyond have flocked to see the world champion and teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. Yet, just as Miami advanced through the group stage and the knockout rounds, Philly won its group and got through the Round of 32, the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals. McGlynn, 20, and Sullivan, 19, have contributed in both starting and reserve roles. They too have plenty of admiration and respect for Messi.

“I think he’s the best player of all time. I think everyone watches him on YouTube, and everyone watches all his amazing highlights,” McGlynn said. “He’s definitely a player that I’ve looked up to my whole life, so it’ll be a really cool experience to see him on the other side.”

Sullivan’s goal in Argentina came the day before his 18th birthday, and he joked to his family that getting a goal in front of Messi was a birthday gift for himself. Even so, he said the experience helps serve as a reminder that no matter how talented Messi is, the Union’s players also have shown their skills and should go into Tuesday’s match with the same attitude they have going into matches against teams with less famous and accomplished stars as the focal point.

“I wouldn’t say my mentality changed. I try and approach every game the same and make a difference,” he said. “But just to have him watching, taking time out of his day to watch me play, when you think about it that way it was pretty crazy.”

Jack McGlynn

McGlynn went a step further, calling it “a surreal experience to see him in person and play in front of him” and said the close contact with Messi and other future world champions pushed him to further refine his game.

“When you see them in person, you realize it’s possible for you to be there one day,” McGlynn said. “I think it really gives you a sense of motivation, playing in front of them and now playing against them. It really gets you going.”

No matter how surreal it feels, the Union will be hosting Messi at Subaru Park in Chester on Tuesday. McGlynn and Sullivan will have an up-close view of the Argentine superstar’s exploits, but they’ll also hope to once again show their best in front of one of the game’s greats.