On Wednesday, May 24, Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan set a new NWSL-era team record for most saves in a game, recording 11 against the top-ranked North Carolina Courage. A week later, she was once again called into camp with Canada’s national team, and to finish out the month, she was named to the NWSL’s Team of the Month for May.
Those accolades in themselves would be impressive for any goalkeeper in the league, but they’re even more impressive considering Sheridan is only in her first professional season. However, unlike most rookies in the league this season, Sheridan entered the NWSL with experience and training unlike most others.
And that is what is already separating her from the rest.
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Talking to Kailen Sheridan, or even just watching her in goal during a game, you would never guess she was once shy. According to her though, she was, and it was because of that shyness that she was introduced to soccer when she was five.
“My parents put me into it because I was a super, super, super shy kid. Like, painfully shy. And I tried gymnastics and swimming and was into all that, but I wouldn't leave their side. But as soon as they put me in soccer, I ran away from them and just started playing and loved it.”
As typical with most kids, the Whitby, Ontario native started out as a field player and actually excelled in her role as forward. She enjoyed being somewhat of “the star,” scoring goals and winning games for her team.
But when she was just eight years old, her team’s goalkeeper quit, and the field players began being rotated into goal to share the goalkeeping duties. When it was Sheridan’s turn in goal, she seemed to be a natural at the position and actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t long before she was offered her first official goalkeeping position.
“A couple of weeks later, we still didn't have a goalkeeper, and my coach called me and asked if I wanted to go in goal full time. I wasn't too sure at the time, but my dad told me, 'You're pretty good at it and you really liked it, so you might as well try it.' So I did, and I haven't really looked back since.”
Sheridan continued playing goalkeeper from there on out, and when she was 11, she joined an all-boys team, where she played for the next couple of years. She was a little bigger than the boys she played against, so she used her size to her advantage, never being afraid to slide or go up against them for a ball.
“They really elevated my game, and I really loved it because it made such an impact. At first they were kind of scared to hurt me...but as soon as I got in there, I slid at them and I was like, 'You're not going to treat me any differently because I'm a girl.’ So after the first month, they just treated me like one of the guys. You know, it was a total challenge for me, but I totally took it on. I was like, 'None of these guys are going to beat me, it's not going to happen.'”
During those childhood years of playing soccer, Sheridan was already dreaming of playing professional soccer. Her favorite team was Manchester United, and she loved watching the likes of Edwin van der Sar, David Beckham, and Ronaldo. Like her male teammates and friends, she dreamed of one day going to Europe to play for Man U.
“That was my goal, and then one day a coach came up to me and said, 'You're a girl. You're going to have to get a scholarship to a university, and then you can go play pro.' And I was like, 'Ok, then let's go do that, and then we'll go play pro!’”
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Sheridan’s performances with Canada’s different youth teams and at various soccer showcases helped get her the attention of several college coaches, including Clemson’s Eddie Radwanski. When Radwanski called Sheridan, she had no clue where Clemson was located, but a coach told her it was in New York. The proximity to her hometown was appealing to Sheridan, so she gave him a call.
“Needless to say, when I called Eddie for the first time and he said it was pretty warm in South Carolina, I kind of freaked out,” she laughed. “But after talking to Eddie and Siri [Mullinix] and then visiting the campus, I really bought into what they were talking about, about bringing a team from the bottom and pulling them back into the lead and bringing them to the top...I wanted to be on a team that I really believed was going to have success and I was going to be able to help bring them to that success.”
The draw of working with former USWNT goalkeeper Siri Mullinix was also a big reason why Sheridan enrolled in Clemson in 2013, and she credits her for much of her growth and development as a keeper.
“I also believed that Siri was going to be a big impact in my life, and I don't regret that at all. She's elevated my game beyond what I could imagine, and I have a lot to thank her for for that,” Sheridan said earnestly before laughing. “We fought for the entire four years, and I wouldn't trade a day of fighting for it, but we're both very stubborn and very strong-headed and we'd have opposing views, but in the end I'd always listen to what she would say because I knew she was right, and I knew she knew more than I did.”
Under Mullinix’s tutelage, Sheridan began her collegiate career with the Tigers. In her freshman season, she started in all 19 games, making 66 saves and recording 7 shutouts while only allowing 18 goals. For the accomplishment, Sheridan was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team and was an All-ACC Third Team selection. In her next two years with the team, she was an All-ACC First Team selection each year, becoming the first Clemson player to make the team since 2007. In 2015, she was chosen the team’s Most Valuable Player.
In the spring following her junior season, Sheridan received her first call-up to Canada’s senior national team, being named to the team’s Algarve Cup roster, taking the third goalkeeper spot in the wake of Erin McLeod’s absence. Although Sheridan was nervous and excited for her first call-up, she expected it to be more of a formality and training experience than anything. But, on the first day of camp, she discovered that was not to be the case.
“The first thing they tell us is that everyone's going to get a game, and I just started freaking out,” she laughed.
Sheridan’s first cap would be against Iceland in the last game of the tournament group stage. During pregame warm-ups, she was nervous and getting even more so as she dropped a couple of balls that she should have caught. Seeing her nerves, her coach came up and talked to her, trying to calm her down and encourage her before kickoff.
“And then he hit me with a Dr. Seuss quote, and I was like, 'What?' And he just said, 'If things start happening, don't worry, don't stew. Just go right along and you'll start happening, too.' And then I was like, 'Alright, let's do this!' and I calmed down and took a breath and we played the game and we won 1-0, so it's a great memory,” she recalled with a laugh.
Canada went on to win the Algarve Tournament that year, their first ever win in the tournament. Despite Sheridan’s impressive performance during her first cap, she was not named to Canada’s Olympic roster for Rio, instead being named an alternate.
Sheridan returned to Clemson for her senior year, where she started in all 21 games played. She recorded another 66 saves and 6 shutouts, allowing only 16 goals, once again earning her All-ACC First Team honors. With her in net, Clemson finished with a 14-5-4 record and the No. 12 ranking in the nation, the highest finish for the Tigers in 15 years. They also earned their first ACC regular season title since 2000 and their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2006.
“I think getting that title and winning at Duke that one day when we knew we clenched that title was the best feeling ever,” she said. “If we looked at where we came in freshman year, we already made an impact, and we could feel the climb each year. You could see [us get] a little bit better every year. Some times were harder than others, it was a difficult process, but...nobody quit on it. We really believed in each other and bought in and were just like, 'We're going to see this to the end and make it happen.'
“You really didn't hear about Clemson until recently, so it's one of the things that I'm really proud of.”
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While at Clemson, Mullinix helped Sheridan realize that her childhood dreams of playing professionally could be a reality. Following Mullinix and Canada Head Coach John Herdman’s advice, Sheridan declared for the NWSL draft following her senior year.
Going into the draft, it was no secret that Sky Blue FC would be in the market for a goalkeeper, and many people speculated that head coach Christy Holly would use one of his two first round picks on Stanford goalkeeper Jane Campbell. However, Holly surprised many by opting instead to draft the defensive duo of Kayla Mills and Mandy Freeman with his first round picks.
But that’s because he had his eye on a different goalkeeper in the draft: Sheridan. Knowing that Campbell would likely be the first goalkeeper selected (she was taken by the Houston Dash midway through the second round), Holly decide to gamble, hoping Sheridan would fall to the third round. When she did, he wasted no time taking her with the No. 23 overall pick.
“She comes in as a player already with a bit of international experience, but she comes in as a player that hasn’t come anywhere close to her ceiling yet. That’s huge for us,” Holly told Dan Lauletta of The Equalizer at the draft.
Much the same way she did at Clemson, Sheridan joined the team and immediately began making her presence felt. In Sky Blue’s 2017 season opener on April 15, Sheridan made her professional debut, holding the Seattle Reign FC to a 1-1 draw.
Since her debut, Sheridan hasn’t looked back. She has played every minute of the season so far, helping Sky Blue to a 4-4-1 record and No. 4 ranking in the league. She has made 35 saves while conceding 13 goals and recording one shutout, a 1-0 home win over FC Kansas City behind a backline consisting entirely of first- and second-year players. Although it’s still early, she’s already being discussed as a contender for the 2017 NWSL Rookie of the Year.
“So far, Kailen has really done a great job for us. It is very difficult to come into your rookie season and be an effective and impactful goalkeeper, yet she has been able to do that for us,” former USWNT goalkeeper and Sky Blue goalkeeping coach Jill Loyden said. “With such a young back line playing in front of her, she has a great presence and has been very commanding out there. She is still working on her 1v1 game, but her distribution is by far some of the best in the league. I think Kailen has an incredibly high ceiling, and she is going to be a very good goalkeeper in this league for a long time.”
For Kailen Sheridan, it looks like the best is yet to come.