After tons of hard work and perseverance, Prescott native Cori Sullivan signs with pro soccer team, Cruz Azul, in Mexico City … making her childhood dreams reality
By Hilary Dartt
When Cori Sullivan, 23, plays pro soccer as a forward with the Cruz Azul in Mexico City, her eight-year-old self is undoubtedly cheering her on.
So are her parents, Tracy and Matt Sullivan, of Prescott.
Cori, who graduated from BASIS Prescott in 2018, knew from the time she was an AYSO player, tagging along with her big sister’s team, that she was meant to play on a bigger pitch. That dream became reality when she signed with Cruz Azul this February.
“It was unbelievable,” Matt said of watching Cori play on TV one evening. “I came home from work last night and there on TV was my daughter playing pro soccer in one of the largest stadiums in the world. There are no words to describe the emotions.”
Matt and Tracy traveled to Mexico City in March to watch her play in person, and, Tracy said, “It was very surreal. We watched this kid growing up, playing soccer since she was very young. She’s always been very determined, very perseverant. [Watching her play professionally] was such an amazing joy. It was a mountaintop moment.”
Although Cori brought natural talent to the game she’s loved since day one, this journey hasn’t been without hard work, obstacles, and perseverance.
Throughout her soccer career, she said, she’s realized two things: when a person has a dream, she should continue to pursue it, no matter what her circumstances or the excuses other people make on her behalf; and that all the pieces of a person’s life, no matter how inconsequential they seem at the time, end up coming together—if she stays the course.
“I always brought a soccer ball wherever we went,” Cori said during a recent interview from her apartment in Mexico City. “And when my dad would come home from work, I’d drag him out to practice with me.”
Whenever she had spare time, she was out with a ball, getting touches and doing drills.
Tracy remembers having to call her into the house because it was dark, snowing, raining, or cold.
She graduated from recreational league to club soccer around fifth or sixth grade, and in middle school, started playing on the Prescott Blackhawks, a boys’ competitive team with a base in Scottsdale, because they didn’t have a full team. After attending a camp with the team, the Scottsdale Blackhawks girls’ coach invited her to play on an all-girls team, and her parents drove her down to the valley twice a week for practices, and on weekends for games.
This busy schedule required Cori to make lots of sacrifices, Tracy said. She didn’t get to go to friends’ houses after school, and often did her homework in the car.
“So much success is because of my parents,” Cori said. “They gave up so much to help me reach my goals.”
Not only in terms of time and finances, she said, but also in terms of supporting her emotionally while she pursued her dreams—even when they felt out of reach.
At another camp, Cori learned about the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which builds teams of the best 16 players in each state. She tried out and made it.
“It was a great learning experience,” she said. “It motivated me; I saw what the next level looked like.”
During a camp in eighth grade, several recruiters from big-name colleges approached her (at that time, recruiters could approach players at any age; that’s changed now, and recruiters must wait until players are older). She made a verbal commitment to University of Pittsburgh (also known as Pitt) her freshman year.
In high school, she played for SC del Sol, a Phoenix-based competitive club that offered her access to college coaches and had good connections with the U.S. National Team.
Thinking back on the long commutes for soccer practices and games, Tracy remembers those days fondly.
“I really valued that quality time with Cori,” she said, adding that she’d make the most of practice time by walking, working in the car, or reading a book. “I knew it was a season. I was willing to make those sacrifices for that season.”
That, in large part, is because of the value she sees in young people doing sports: “They learn such valuable lessons. Hard work, mental toughness, cooperation, discipline … and these carry on to adult life”
During Cori’s senior year of high school, Pitt replaced the soccer coach she’d met. Knowing the program might take time to rebuild, Cori decided to pursue a different college home. Signing week was just a few weeks away, and Cori sent out emails to coaches she’d met, letting them know she may be interested in playing for them.
She ended up choosing the women’s soccer program at Arizona State University, and played as a starter from freshman year (2018) to senior year (2021).
“I fell in love with how [the coach] wanted to create the team and program,” she said. “He wanted to bring in international players to become a powerhouse in the PAC 12.”
The team roster included players from all over the world: Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, England, New Zealand, Japan, and Canada.
Going into her freshman year, Cori experienced a major obstacle: she developed celiac disease and learned she had Hashimoto’s disease. Looking back on that season now, she said, she doesn’t know how she got through it. She red shirted her sophomore year to focus on getting healthy.
“It was hard to be around the team but not be super involved in the game,” she said. Still, she found a silver lining: “It helped me realize that nothing is guaranteed, and it’s so important to live in the moment.”
The next year, she was feeling better and playing with the team again when COVID hit just after spring break. She came home to Prescott, and was enjoying playing pick-up games with friends from childhood … until she tore her ACL and meniscus and fractured some bone in her knee.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back to soccer,” she said. “But my roommates and parents and family were crucial in helping me get back, helping me realize how much I missed it and loved it.”
Tracy, too, questioned whether the diagnoses or injuries might end Cori’s soccer career: “There were a couple of times where I thought, ‘Okay, we’re done,’” she said. But after being diagnosed with Celiac and Hashimoto’s, and taking some time to recover, Cori “came back fired up. She was running half marathons to prepare for soccer.”
In March 2021, the ASU team had its best season as a team, and Cori scored the game-winning goal against rival UCLA, who they hadn’t beaten in 20 years. As a result, she was named PAC-12 Offensive Player of the Week.
“For me, that was a hilltop after overcoming so much,” Cori said.
She graduated from ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College’s pre-med program with a degree in biological sciences—and another year of eligibility.
For one year, she attended the University of Washington, her dad’s alma mater, and enjoyed not only learning a different style of soccer, but also taking “just for fun” classes.
Cori was still looking forward to going pro when she tore her meniscus again during a PAC-12 game in October 2022. She needed surgery, and wasn’t going to have time to enter the U.S. National Women’s Soccer League draft.
“That was one of those moments when God placed a piece for me,” she said.
Her ASU roommate and best friend, Alexia Delgado, plays for the Mexican Women’s National Team and signed her first pro contract with Cruz Azul Femenil in Mexico City. She called Cori and asked her how she’d feel about playing pro—together.
Alexia sent Cori’s highlight reel to the coach, and the next week, the team invited her to join.
“It’s crazy how it all worked out,” Cori said.
“It’s so fun to have soccer as your job. I can’t believe I get paid to run around the field and kick the ball and just be one hundred percent focused on soccer.”
There is some pressure; she’s paid to score goals.
But overall, she’s loving it. “It’s so fun to be surrounded by people who are professional and continue to improve and want to win. It’s a competitive environment, and I’m a competitive person, so I love it.”
Cori’s daily schedule includes gym workouts, field practice, recovery, and then a mix of ice baths, psychology, films, and planning.
Most of her teammates are native Spanish speakers, and she’s getting a crash course in the language even as her teammates are learning some English. Living in Mexico City is fun; soccer is a national pastime and people often recognize her and ask her for her autograph. The team travels all over the country for matches, and they play on “massive, beautiful pitches.”
Eventually, Cori said, she plans to attend medical school, and although she’s not certain which line of work she’ll pursue, she’s considering orthopedic surgery because of the positive impact her orthopedic surgeon had in terms of helping her get back to soccer.
In the meantime, she feels like she’s living the dream. Now, she said, she understands “why life was throwing all those crazy curve balls at me, why I worked so hard for so long.”
Follow Cori on Instagram @cori_sullivan.