Canada’s Kailen Sheridan: My Game in My Words


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In this My Game In My Words series, The Athletic builds towards the Women’s World Cup by talking to leading players around the world to find out how they think about football, why they play the way they do and to reflect — through looking back at their key career moments — on their achievements so far. 

Right at the start of our conversation, Canada and San Diego Wave starting goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan describes herself as a “progressive goalkeeper.” Why? Well, she’s always looking for things to add to her game, especially when it comes to her footwork and distribution.

“I worked a lot of my life on shot-stopping and being the best but, ultimately, I now spend like 80% of the game with the ball at my feet, so that’s what I want to continue to grow in my game and be the best at,” she says.

That wasn’t always how she viewed her role. It wasn’t until a year or so into her pro career that she decided to become a more progressive goalkeeper.

“I had a good base and that’s why I could push the ball forward,” Sheridan explains. “It was definitely something I worked on a little bit, but didn’t think it was my identity as a goalkeeper. It wasn’t my go-to but it’s definitely something now that I realised watching film and so on, that we (goalkeepers) do so much in possession. I want to be a part of the build-up and I want to be a part of the solution to help with transition, and I think I can bring that to a team. So that’s how I look at myself as a goalkeeper now. How can I be the best in-possession goalkeeper?”

The distribution aspect, which has become such a large part of modern goalkeeping, came naturally to Sheridan once she started playing professionally. During her youth, she played futsal and she played with boys who always challenged her, making her a better overall player.

During her collegiate years, Sheridan was under the tutelage of Siri Mullinix at Clemson University, where she was named to the All-ACC first team in 2014 and 2015. She was the first player in Clemson history to achieve that honour.

“Siri, my goalkeeper coach, really challenged me in a lot of different areas,” Sheridan says. “To be the best shot-stopper, to be able to spread (stretch out your body to block a shot) better, how to spread, find different ways to do one-v-ones and be the best that I can be in those situations.” 

Sheridan notes that Mullinix also challenged her to use her feet more and pushed her to high levels with her first touch, or how to use her body to manipulate a forward’s movement. Sheridan was already capable of hitting the ball over a long distance and once Mullinix saw that, she began to look into how Clemson as a team could use it to their advantage. 

“That’s when I really started to see bigger pictures and open up how you view the field in front of you,” Sheridan says. “It’s very similar to chess: if I do this, this person’s going to do X,Y and Z, so how do I think a couple of steps ahead of what ball I’m playing, and how is that going to impact the game?”

The next stage of her development as a goalkeeper came when she was drafted by NJ/NY Gotham FC (then Sky Blue FC) in 2017. She began working with The Keeper Institute in New Jersey, where they would look over a lot of film of other goalkeepers to mould her game.

“We would look at a lot of film from Carly Telford (former England and San Diego Wave goalkeeper), film from Ederson (Manchester City), film from Allison (Liverpool FC), just a lot of goalkeepers who I would say like to play with the risk factor in possession, and I really related to that. I was like, ‘I love that!’” she says.

“It’s not a risk to me. It’s like, ‘Wow, he tried that. She tried that, she really tried that!’ We’re seeing it a lot more in women’s soccer now, it was mostly men’s soccer when I was watching those clips, and Carly was one of the first female goalkeepers I saw who was like, ‘I’m going to try that. I’m going to try something crazy and a little risky to some other people’. I think we’re both of the same mindset that this (type of play) would benefit so many other things if it did work. That’s how we like to look at the game.”

Sheridan gives a lot of praise to how the current goalkeepers for England all play in a similar way to Telford, and how the Canada keepers are following a similar path. 

“It’s really cool to see.” she says.”It’s definitely a huge thing that we push here at the Wave as well. Louis (Hunt) is always challenging us in possession and how to manipulate forwards with our touch or with our body; or deciding where’s the most numerical advantage pass we can make. What’s going to make the biggest impact in the game, three steps down the line?”

Being an aggressive goalkeeper isn’t for the faint of heart. When asked if she’s had conversations with family or friends about her move to being a more aggressive passer, Sheridan gives a wry smile.

“Oh I don’t think that would’ve helped in any way. They were like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Please stop doing that.’” she says with a laugh. “To this day they still say that, especially my family. The heart attack comment is like a text after every game at this point, so I think I’m just immune to it now but they also know it’s a big thing for me. That I want to do it.” 

It’s something that has become a motto for Sheridan, the way she plays as a goalkeeper, and what kind of impact she wants to leave behind when she’s done with her playing career. 

“When I leave the game, my biggest goal is to know that I tried everything I could’ve tried and left. … Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but at least when I walk away I know that I at least gave it a shot. Maybe I was capable of it or maybe I wasn’t but I don’t want to not know.”

As the interview continues, the first clip we see is one where Kailen Sheridan shows off her distribution skills in a 2022 NWSL game against her former team, Gotham FC. Sheridan was named NWSL goalkeeper of the year in 2022, something she fully credits to her backline, which includes USWNT center back Naomi Girma, last year’s NWSL rookie of the year. 

“Distribution, my favourite,” Sheridan says as the video rolls on.

Understanding the runs your teammates make is vital for outfield players and has become an important aspect of goalkeeping, as well. In this clip, Sheridan looks to find Alex Morgan, who is preparing to make a run behind the Gotham backline.

“When I’m higher up the field, we (Morgan and Sheridan) have a good relationship where if I do have the ball and I’m outside the 18-yard area, there’s a really good opportunity for us if the backline is high,” she explains. “I’m looking for her to see if she’s ready or not, and that’s why I take that stutter to see if she can get back onside because originally, she’s offside. And if that backline steps up when I take a lateral or negative touch, then yeah, I’m looking for her run because I know her strengths and I want to put her in the best position possible.”

Morgan has already signalled to Sheridan that she’s making a run before the ball even reaches her goalkeeper because Sheridan doesn’t want to just play blindly in that channel. 

“I need to know she’s ready to go, I just don’t want to play it behind after she’s done three to four sprints in the last 30 seconds and I’m going to gas her. So I’m kinda waiting, waiting, trying to draw the defenders in. If I can draw in those two nines,” Sheridan points at the two Gotham strikers, “then that means their backline is going to step up to close the gap between the midfield. So ideally, that’s when I’m trying to look in behind to see if Alex is ready.”

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After a year of playing together, both Sheridan and Morgan know each other’s tendencies and abilities in this moment. 

“It’s not a training thing anymore now — it’s more of a relationship thing now,” Sheridan says. “I know that if I put her in space to take on a goalkeeper one-v-one then I’m taking her in that race most days. So I want to put her in those situations as often as I can.”

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Being able to ping a pass like that hasn’t always been a staple in women’s football, particularly from goalkeepers, and Sheridan agrees with that. 

“We’re seeing it more now,” she says. “Obviously in the men’s game it’s such a massive threat and it makes teams have to defend differently, and we want teams to defend us (San Diego) differently.”

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The next clip we go over shows Sheridan’s distribution work. Sheridan and Gotham FC were playing the Portland Thorns in 2021 and Sheridan was able to help her team move up the pitch simply by being able to change an opposition throw-in into possession for her team.

When I tell her it’s a great pass, she laughs. “Thanks.”

“I’ve been working on that pass a lot, across my body, a first-time leading ball — especially when we’ve been stuck on one side. Being able to release the pressure and switch it to the other side as quickly as possible,” she says. “I worked on it a lot with my coach, Jill (Lloyden), back at home and she really challenged me to be able to see those pictures faster in order to be able to technically pull that off.”


In this instance, Sheridan acts like a midfielder, constantly scanning the pitch to see where her teammates are and where the numerical advantage is. Her aim is to try to exploit any pockets or holes that Portland have left in their midfield due to that sudden change from a throw-in to a backpass to the goalkeeper.

Our next clip, from this past May against the KC Current, has her commenting with a smile on how awkward she looks in the freeze frame. Debinha is sizing up a direct free kick on San Diego and Sheridan is orchestrating her wall and trying to position herself to make a stop against one of the best players around.

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“It’s definitely a good save, this one,” she says. “It’s something they (the Wave coaching staff) have been challenging me on. My push, and being patient. I think it’s easy to cheat in this situation, behind the wall.”

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“Debinha is capable of hitting anything from anywhere and because the ball is a little off-center, that’s the side I put the wall on. Just to make it more challenging (for her), and then really leave it up to me to defend that other side.”

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“I do cheat a little bit here though. I take half a step. I made the stop but I maybe got a little bit lucky there because Debinha will get you if she catches you cheating.”

Before I even mention what the next clip is, Sheridan recognises the moment immediately. 

“I watch so many clips,” she says with a laugh. This time, she’s called upon to stop Sam Kerr scoring in a one-v-one situation in last September’s friendly between Australia and Canada.

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Sheridan comes forward, stalls and then comes forward again, but that’s not exactly what Sheridan intended to do.

“I think originally I actually backtrack, which I think gives her a little bit of comfortability to take another touch, and then when she does take that touch, it gives me an opportunity to close her down a little bit,” she says. “She’s so far beyond our defenders, it’s just me and her at that point. There’s no recovering defender able to really put pressure on her. You can see there, they’re miles off. So it’s going to be me and her until Shelina (Zadorsky) arrives to put a little bit of pressure, so I drop back to give her that confidence to take a big touch and as soon as she gives me that look of, ‘I’m going to take a touch and really come at you’, that’s when I want to put the pressure back on her and close the space.”

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It was a calculated move by Sheridan, making Kerr feel confident enough in what was about to happen to drop her head and place her shot.

“If I can’t get there first, I’m probably going to drop back and make them (the strikers) make the decision of where we’re going to go,” she explains. “The forwards are in control a lot in these situations and that’s just how it is. I think the more that we can make them over-think, put them off balance, the more likely we’re going to get a more reactive save. We’ll be able to react to something more, or put them so off balance that they miss. So ultimately, I’m just trying to put her off balance as much as possible and get in her own head.”

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“It’s something we, as goalkeepers, play with. We play with angles. What’s better? Coming out and scaring the s— out of them or staying back?”

Sheridan goes on to talk about her style in those situations compared to that of other goalkeepers. She prefers to stay back more often than not, because she’s looking to put the control back on the strikers and “make them freak out”. She does note that there are other goalkeepers, some of whom she’s worked with, who are really good at coming out and stopping a striker further up the pitch and being the one in control and not the striker. But that’s just not her forte, nor is she comfortable with it.

Our final clip shows her making a near-post save against Brazil in the 2023 SheBelieves Cup, after a set-piece ball made its way into the penalty area close to goal.

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“I don’t cheat on this one,” she says with a smile. “It’s more of, I’m trying to decide whether to come or not, instead of trying to cheat a little. The ball ends up carrying wider of the goal than I want it to, so I just drop back in. These are difficult because the wider you go, the more in no-mans land you get.”

Her aim in this case is to not only cover her near post but also to cover as much of the rest of the goal as she can. 

“Anything that goes wider than that, the height is really going to determine whether I can come and affect it.”

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“At this point, I don’t think I can come and affect it really, it’s too wide. So I make the decision to drop and get myself balanced and react. I get maybe a little lucky that it’s to my near post and it’s a little bit more within my reach, but it’s about my footwork and making that decision early enough. I’ve definitely been in situations where I put myself in bad spots because I don’t make that decision early enough. I think that just comes with experience, having had those moments so I can adjust in the future.”

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Speaking about Canada brings us to the moment that changed the trajectory of the team, the Tokyo Olympics.

“Tokyo was like no other tournament and I don’t think any other tournament will be like it because of the way that it was (under COVID-19 protocols). And we all have a bond over that, a trauma bond,” she says with a laugh, “from being secluded from everybody but, seeing all of the work and not in a negative way, but seeing all the suffering… everything that went into it, you could feel it in the moment — and I think that that’s what made it so special. 

“We went through so much as a team, as individuals in the build-up, and I’m not just talking about the six months before it, I’m talking about years before it as a team. It all kind of just fell out of us when that whistle blew after Julia (Grosso) had put it in the back of the net. That moment will be something that we treasure forever, and will carry us through. 

“I hope that the country feels connected to us in that way because of how powerful it was for us in a moment where everyone was going through some s—, in a moment where everyone was trying to figure out what COVID meant and what it looked like. It just gave us a glimpse of things going in a positive direction. It was definitely a turning point for us and I’ve seen it in our team, in the past year since that, knowing what we deserve and what we expect from our federation, our fans, our families and ourselves. We know what we’re capable of now, and it’s really changed the dynamic of our team.”

Now with a World Cup looming, her role within the team has taken another turn. In 2019, she was a backup, but this time around she’ll be the starting goalkeeper for her country. Her objectives haven’t changed, though. 

“Obviously we all want to win and that’s my biggest goal,” she says. “I think, and I always say this, I just want to know that I was the best that I could be and I tried everything that I wanted to try at that moment. I want to just know that I had no regrets, that I left everything I could’ve given out there, I tried all that I could try and I was the best that I could’ve been. If that’s not good enough then I can apologise and walk away; but I want to know that I at least did give everything. I don’t want to walk away and go home and think ‘I wish I tried X, Y. Z in this situation’ or I didn’t do this recovery and that’s why I was sore the next day. I want to make sure that everything I can possibly do, I do, and when I get home no matter the result, I feel kind of fulfilled in that way.”

World Cups always produce moments of magic, and we’re yet to see a goalkeeper score at the tournament. When asked if she would like to score, Sheridan already knows how she’d want to do it.

“Listen, I would love to take a free kick. I think I take a mean free kick but if it doesn’t work, I’ll have to sprint my ass back to goal and I’m not sure my fitness is at the right place for that yet,” she says in amusement. “I have to get my high-speed runs up and then I’ll put myself in that situation.”

What if it’s the last minute of the game, in a knock-out situation?

“If it’s in the last minute? Oh yeah, I’m definitely going up for a set piece. I’ll definitely see what’s happening and go. You might as well risk it. I would love to. I don’t know what I’d do if I scored a goal though, I think my jaw would just drop and that’s it. That’s when I might hit my high-speed run. If the moment comes, I’m ready.”

The My Game In My Words series is part of a partnership with Google Pixel. The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Photo: Andrew Wiseman / DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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