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A goalkeeper’s perspective: Kailen Sheridan

The final frontier in football seems to be the goalkeeping position and I spoke to the San Diego Wave FC goalkeeper all about it.

Canada v United States: Final - 2020 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

“Everyone thinks we’re crazy but I kind of love that.”

That’s the theme that we always hear about goalkeepers. “You have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper” but Kailen Sheridan leans into that theme because she loves the position she plays in.

That wasn’t always the case for the San Diego Wave FC goalkeeper. When she first started playing football with Ajax United and the Toronto Lynx (academy teams in south east Ontario), she started as a forward. The academy system then didn’t have a girls structure so she decided to join those teams, train and play with the boys to help with her development.

At that time, everyone on the team took turns playing as a goalkeeper. It never bothered her to be in goal but she preferred playing up top and wanted to stay there. Her performances in goal convinced her coaches and her father otherwise.

“My dad said to me one day, you’re actually not bad at it so why don’t you try it? I didn’t want to be a goalkeeper though, I wanted to play as a forward and score goals. Ultimately, he was the one who pushed me the most towards becoming a goalkeeper.”

That push that a nine-year old Sheridan may not have wanted led to her becoming a household name more than a decade later. “It takes a certain type of personality to be a goalkeeper, not everyone can do it. I ended up falling in love with it over time. I loved shot stopping, diving around, being fearless.”

Throughout her years as a goalkeeper, different coaches provided different perspectives for Sheridan as she developed. “Siri [Mullinix] was the biggest influence on me as a goalkeeper and she’s why I wanted to go to Clemson University. I felt that she could push me to the next level,” she says. Sheridan was definitely pushed to that next level at Clemson, making 72 appearances for the Tigers from 2013 to 2016. In both 2014 and 2015, she was named to the All-ACC first team and became the first Clemson player in history to achieve that honour in 2014.

NCAA SOCCER: OCT 27 Women’s - Clemson at Duke
Sheridan during her Clemson University days
Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After she was drafted by NJ/NY Gotham FC (then Sky Blue FC) in 2017, she began training with Jill Loyden, owner and CEO at The Keeper Institute (TKI). “Jill helped me understand the game better and showed me where I had to grow as a goalkeeper,” Sheridan shares. “She helped me with how to read the game, look at it, break it down and break down other goalkeepers all so I could and can improve my own game.” Her time spent with TKI has helped her break down film better and show Sheridan how she can prevent certain situations from happening instead of reacting to them all the time. TKI, along with Mullinix, have made her the goalkeeper she is today and Sheridan credits them with being the biggest influences on her game to date.

Part of that development was also learning that goalkeepers always come under constant criticism from those outside of the sport. Their positioning is always called into question, their communication, their anticipation; it seems like any move a goalkeeper makes that doesn’t result in a save is up for endless interpretation yet those doing the interpretation usually haven’t played the position. Thus, their knowledge is limited and doesn’t always frame what is happening in certain moments for a goalkeeper.

“There’s a statement that flies around that you should never get beaten at your near post.” Sheridan acknowledges as we talk about the criticism goalkeepers face. “That’s the hardest shot for the forward, that’s your [the goalkeeper’s] angle. That’s what you should be protecting.”

There’s definitely some truth to that statement as anyone who knows the sport will tell you but it never takes into account the little niches, the ‘uncontrollables’ in those moments. Sheridan notes that goalkeepers have to defend that near post while also keeping an account of where their defenders are and how close the forward is to the goal. “The best way to prevent that is to be able to react quickly and that comes after a lot of research, studying the position and watching a lot of film. Anticipating or guessing where the shot will go usually leads to those types of goals so the best thing for any goalkeeper to do is to be able to trust your reactions.”

For a forward to beat a goalkeeper from that angle, it has to be put in almost the perfect spot; in the top corner or the far post, somewhere where the goalkeeper has no chance of reaching it. “Our job is to make it so hard for them to put it in the goal, that’s where they need to aim. Any time you anticipate or react, it shifts your weight and leaves the near post and other pockets, easier pockets, for them to aim for.”

Hindsight or replays also help determine just how at fault a goalkeeper is for letting in a goal at the near post. Their body positioning, where the defenders are pressing the forward to go towards, how the ball is rolling as the shot comes in, all of that can show if a goalkeeper was easily beat or if other factors made them shift their position and allow such a goal to happen. “That’s why goalkeepers need to react and not guess/anticipate,” she says. “It’s one of the hardest parts of our position, trusting your reactions and for me, it’s something I’m constantly working on.”

One-on-one situations are also another area that goalkeepers are scrutinised heavily on. Just as with a near post goal, so many little details go into how a goalkeeper should approach a one-v-one as well. “Different coaches throughout my career have shown me different approaches to that. Siri [Mullinix] from Clemson and all my youth coaches had different ways of training me for that.” Sheridan states. The Keeper Institute, where she does a lot of her training during the offseason, has made those situations simpler for her. “They’ve made it easier for me to make a snap decision there. You only have a little bit of time so once you commit, you have to do it. You also have to decide if you need to make a secondary decision or go with your first thought in those situations.”

TKI also gives Sheridan the opportunity to discuss other options during film or training with Jill Loyden. “Everything we discuss makes it easier to learn, grow and make better decisions in the future.”

Another aspect of Kailen Sheridan’s journey to where she is today in her career is constantly evolving her style as the position itself evolves. “I started off learning the position then learning how to be a great shot stopper, pulling off great saves. Then I evolved in handling more complex situations like one-on-ones.”

As many who watch the game will know, the biggest evolution in the goalkeeping position is the ability to use your feet. Goalkeepers are now considered as almost an eleventh outfield player and are expected to be able to not only shot stop and so forth, but also be able to receive the ball with or without pressure, and pick out a pass. “It wasn’t important for me at first to know how to combine and play well in pressure situations when I was growing up and now it’s the biggest part of my game. You have to trust yourself under pressure now as a goalkeeper and your team has to be able to trust you to play in those situations as well.”

NJ/NY Gotham City FC v North Carolina Courage
Sheridan is known for being to help her team build out from the back
Photo by Lewis Gettier/ISI Photos/Getty Images

This however, doesn’t mean that a goalkeeper should have less focus on their fundamentals. Any goalkeeper will tell you that the most important thing is to prevent a goal, not to become as technically gifted as a midfielder. Part of those fundamentals also include the ability to organise a defense. The better a goalkeeper is at doing that, the better their shot saving percentage becomes.

Sheridan emphasises the importance of organisation and communication when they’re brought up. “One of the most difficult things I see in the game is how a goalkeeper organises their defense and then readies herself throughout the game.” The more Sheridan explains it, the more you realise exactly how many thoughts are flying through a goalkeeper’s mind in mere seconds. “Being able to multi-task, being able to put yourself in the perfect position while putting someone else in the perfect position, is one of the hardest things in our game. It sounds straight forward but it isn’t. The opponent is always moving, other people around you are moving, you have to see where the danger is, constantly scan the pitch for any potential situation and then also be ready yourself at any moment to save a shot. You have to move all these tiny little pieces in such a tiny little amount of time with different variables that are constantly changing.”

Training consistently with defenders helps any goalkeeper with that. When you’re with a club for six, seven or eight months in a year, you get to work with that team’s defenders for every situation. “We discuss the best angles for a forward to take a shot at and how we can take away say 10% of the goal, to make my job so much more easier,” she says. “That really helps me, having that chemistry with the defenders and the ability to communicate clearly with them.”

“We constantly talk in training,” Sheridan continues. “We have conversations on what I expect from them in certain situations, break those situations down, bounce off ideas with them about it so that we’re all on the same page during a game. They tell me what they’re seeing, what they’re attempting to do and we help each other figure out what the best course of action is in those situations.”

That constant communication is key because a goalkeeper has a completely different view to everyone else on the pitch. A good goalkeeper can communicate what’s happening effectively to defenders who can’t see what’s going on behind them, or on the sidelines or on their blindsides. It’s all a part of what being a goalkeeper means in this day and age and why, at the end of the day, if a goalkeeper doesn’t have the fundamentals down, no fancy footwork will save them or keep them in the starting line up for their team.

During the 2021 offseason, Kailen Sheridan moved from Gotham FC to San Diego with the San Diego Wave. That move not only meant that Sheridan had to now rebuild that chemistry and communication with a new team but she also had to learn the tendencies of her new backline in order to perform her job well. When I spoke with her, Sheridan had been in training for two weeks with San Diego and was preparing to head off and join up with Canada for The Arnold Clark Cup in England.

Naomi Girma trains with Sheridan during pre season with the San Diego Wave
Photo by Jenny Chuang via San Diego Wave FC

Sheridan seemed quite upbeat about the new challenge she was now facing. “We have a lot of new players so it’s creating a competitive environment that lets you be confident but also makes you want to be at your best every day because everyone else is doing the same. It’s a great environment to grow and challenge yourself to be the best player you can be. Each player here has grown every day and I can tell that over time, the edge will become more ingrained in us. I’m looking forward to that.”

There are some drawbacks though, as is the norm when anyone enters a new environment. “We need more time to understand each other and those relationships are so important. With Canada, I’m still building those relationships as well. My relationships with the center backs and the six (defensive midfielder) are the most important relationships to me. Those are the people I rely on for communication and for building out play. We need to know each other’s tendencies. I created those key relationships last year with Allie Long (Gotham FC midfielder) for example and now I have to re-create them with San Diego. It’s such a blank slate this team, so what we do create will have an authentic feel to it and I’m looking forward to that.”

Speaking of Canada, Sheridan was the starting goalkeeper at the Arnold Clark Cup after Stephanie Labbé announced her retirement earlier this year. Labbé, who Sheridan believes is the best goalkeeper she’s seen and an even better teammate, will no longer be suiting up for Canada which means that Sheridan is now in pole position to make that starting role her own. It means that those key relationships that Sheridan likes will also have to be developed with Kadeisha Buchanan, Shelina Zardorsky, Vanessa Gilles, Quinn and Desiree Scott.

Before that, we delved into memory lane for a few minutes as we talked about Canada’s Olympic Gold medal last year in Tokyo. “It’s a moment that I won’t forget,” she says. “I do, however, remember so much more that happened beforehand. We put in so much hard work into winning that Gold medal and even though winning is the most defining moment, I remember the hard work that led to it.”

Sheridan credits Labbé with creating the right environment for her and Sabrina D’Angelo to excel in. “We pushed each other to be the best that we can be, and it was competitive but it made me think how I can help her be the best that she could be during that tournament.”

Canada v Sweden: Gold Medal Match Women’s Football - Olympics: Day 14 Photo by Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

The environment to have great communication and chemistry with your teammates is not easy to replicate for country as it is for club, Sheridan notes. With less time to prepare and to train, Sheridan’s time with the Canadian defenders is limited so having a steady routine gives her some level of comfort no matter what country she’s in.

“On game day, I wake up, have my coffee, go for a walk, get a little stretch in, relax and then have my shower,” she says. “My coffee will always be there, I can always go for a walk and I can always take a shower. Having those things as constants helps especially when you can’t control the environment you’re in.”

That level of comfort or reliability in simple things helps Kailen Sheridan to also prepare herself for training with a new set of players when she’s with Canada. “With my club team, I see them every day so if we work on something and it doesn’t work that day, I can come back tomorrow and fix it over the course of the season and know that it’ll figure itself out because I have the time. With the national team, we have no time. Time is never on our side.” Sheridan then unpacks what that means. “The hardest part is knowing your role in those situations [with Canada]. Sometimes you’re the starter, sometimes you aren’t. You just have to be the best you can be in whatever role you have and create enough communication with the starting defenders that on game day, you’re at the best chemistry level you can all be at that time.”

Having top class defenders will help with that chemistry without a doubt. Of all the defenders Sheridan has played behind, she had high praise for Buchanan and Estelle Johnson. “I’ve been blessed to play with such talented people so it’s tough to pick out the best,” Sheridan states with humour before she carries on. “Kadeisha [Buchanan] is one the best defenders in the world and of the best to play behind. She’s amazing at the sport, at her position and she’s ahead of the curve for her age. Estelle [Johnson] is someone else I consider as one of the best in the world. She has such an amazing mindset about the game and has the ability to put herself in front of tough shots which makes my job so much easier. I also trust her on the ball, I can play her the ball and know that she can handle whatever pass comes her way in any situation”.

Racing Louisville FC v NJ/NY Gotham City FC
Former teammate Estelle Johnson was one of Sheridan’s favourite defenders to play behind
Photo by Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Neither Buchanan nor Johnson are with San Diego but that doesn’t mean that Sheridan doesn’t feel like she won’t have great players to work behind when the NWSL season starts. She noted that Abby Dahlkemper was well-renowned at what she does and that she was looking forward to developing more of a relationship with her and having her trust in Sheridan become more established. San Diego also drafted highly-rated Stanford alum Naomi Girma with the first pick of the 2022 NWSL Draft, someone that Sheridan is looking forward to playing with. “I’m also lucky to have Naomi Girma with me. She brings in a young mindset, she’s a hard worker who’s also very technical and I’m looking forward to seeing her development. She’s such a blank slate at this level and that’s exciting to me as a goalkeeper because I can help her find out what her niche is and what her comfort level is as a center back.”

I couldn’t end the interview without putting Sheridan to the test about a few things and in the process of doing that, found out her favourite jersey that she’s worn was an all black one. “It looks so nice and makes you look good as well so it’s my favourite purely because of that.”

Finally when asked to pick a 5-a-side for herself, Sheridan hesitated at naming names due to the number of good players she’s played with and currently playing with. After thinking it over, Sheridan went with Buchanan, Quinn who replaced the initial pick of Allie Long (“they’re stepping it up on so many levels right now”), Christine Sinclair, Leah Galton and Ashley Lawrence. Her alternate would be Vanessa Gilles if alternates are allowed and she’d be the goalkeeper, of course.

Sheridan also decided to pick a manager for her team. “It’ll be either Casey Stoney (San Diego’s head coach) or Bev Priestman (Canada’s head coach). They can duke it out over who should be head coach and assistant coach,” she finished with a laugh.