Soccer

Canadian keeper Sheridan says other pro leagues should follow NWSL's restart model

While other North American pro leagues have been stalled by positive tests, training facilities closing and re-opening and choosing hub cities, it’s more or less been business as usual for the National Women's Soccer League.

Whitby, Ont., native believes league's successful resumption has been overlooked

Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan of Whitby, Ont., is seen during a training session on Monday. The 24-year-old said the National Women's Soccer League's successful return to play has been overshadowed by the buildup to other potential pro league restarts. (@NWSL/Twitter)

Outside of craving a home-cooked meal, Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan says life inside the National Women's Soccer League's Village in Utah is just grand.

"Training's been going well, the facilities are great," says the current Canadian national team member with a goal of going to the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

"The altitude out here definitely hit us a little bit, just getting acclimatized. Thankfully we're on the good side of it now."

In terms of a return to play amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the NWSL might just have the playbook for getting it right.

While other North American pro leagues have been stalled by positive tests, training facilities closing and re-opening and choosing hub cities, it's more or less been business as usual for the NWSL. You could say everything is running as smoothly as a Debinha pass. Not familiar with the Brazilian midfielder? Look her up.

WATCH | Bethany Balcer scores dramatic winner for OL Reign:

Bethany Balcer scored in the 91st minute as the OL Reign beat the Utah Royals 1-0 in the National Women's Soccer League's Challenge Cup tournament. 1:20

Sure, they're playing a condensed World Cup-style schedule instead of their usual regular season. And yes, the Orlando Pride was forced to withdraw before the tournament began because of coronavirus cases, but to get off the ground first and do it safely is a source of pride for the players.

"We're impressed with how our league has handled it. There are little bumps on the road here and there. I think the biggest thing to take out of this is how we were able to make it happen successfully with those bumps. People should be looking at what we're doing," Sheridan said.

"People overlooked us, they kind of forgot that we were back and only made sure that the NBA, MLS and MLB were highlighted, but we've been going. They haven't even started yet."

Since arriving just over a week ago from their home base in New Jersey, Sheridan and her Sky Blue teammates, including fellow Canadian Evelyne Viens, have settled into one of the two team hotels (they share theirs with the Houston Dash). Players have their own rooms and teams are scheduled to eat at different times so they don't cross paths more than is necessary.

Despite having just over a month to prepare for the Challenge Cup – and with some star scratches due to injury, maternity leave or choosing not to play – fans will tell you the level of play has been fantastic.

From diving headers to quick reflex saves and back-heel flicks.

WATCH | Ashley Sanchez delivers sublime back-heel flick assist:

A perfect setup from Ashley Sanchez led to an equalizing goal for the Washington Spirit in a 1-1 draw against the Portland Thorns in the National Women's Soccer League's Challenge Cup. 1:12

The opening game between North Carolina and Christine Sinclair's Portland Thorns drew an eye popping record 572,000 total viewers on CBS, a +201 per cent increase from the previous best of 190,000 set back in 2014.

Building chemistry essential in shortened format

In a short tournament like the Challenge Cup, gelling as a team is key, on and off the field.

Whether it's karaoke, ping pong or getting together to watch the other teams play, the shared experience of living in this Utah bubble during COVID-19 has strengthened bonds around the league.

Follow any of the league's eight teams' social media and you'll see the competitive side, but also the camaraderie.

"They've got a good set up here. We've been playing ping pong a lot and Kan Jam," Sheridan said of one of their team's favourites, a frisbee game where you throw the disc into a little trash can.

"We had a good game, Estelle [Johnson] and I beat [head coach] Freya [Coombe] and [assistant coach] Becki [Tweed], so that was good. Put them in their place," she laughed. "Those games are fun to have, but we're a pretty close group regardless."

Sheridan seeking constant improvement

Drafted by Sky Blue in the 2017 NWSL Draft (23rd overall), Sheridan has impressed since beginning her professional career. She tied for the league lead in saves the past two seasons and her save percentage has been the best so far in the Challenge Cup, stopping seven of eight shots in two games.

Perhaps more impressive is the fact she's only 24. Goalkeepers have a reputation for improving year after year, like fine wine.

WATCH | Sheridan save salvages draw for Sky Blue FC:

Whitby, Ontario's Kailen Sheridan denied Jasmyne Spencer in the 85th minute to preserve Sky Blue FC's 0-0 draw against the OL Reign. 0:45
"My goal each day is always to see how I can improve," she said. "For the remainder of this tournament, it's how I can be a better teammate, how I can be a better goalkeeper and how I can help this team to get to our goal of getting to the championship game. That's my main focus."

With one game to go in their preliminary round against two-time defending champions North Carolina, Sky Blue sits second in the standings thanks to a 2-0 over Houston on Wednesday. That win also marked Sheridan's second clean sheet of the Challenge Cup.

All eight teams advance to the knockout rounds, seeded by way of their results of the first four games. It's single elimination all the way to the final, which takes place on July 26 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Sheridan says it's been tough to be on the road for so long, despite the perk of having a room and big bed all to herself.

As for that home-cooked meal? Sheridan says it's a work in progress.

"We've had the opportunity to get our team some groceries and make our own food a bit, but nothing compares to home.

About the Author

Signa Butler is a host and play-by-play commentator with CBC Sports, where she has worked for nearly two decades. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this summer will be her 10th with the network.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now