Kailen Sheridan eager to fill Canada's 'keeper shoes left behind by retired Labbé
26-year-old will assume the net in friendly against South Korea on Sunday
Canadian women's team goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan can't stop smiling these days.
Last week, the 26-year-old from Pickering, Ont., got engaged to her long-time girlfriend, with the couple expecting to get married late next year.
Things are going just as well on the pitch for Sheridan. She's enjoying a standout NWSL season with the San Diego Wave, recording four shutouts as the expansion club sits in first place after 10 games.
Sheridan is also set to begin an important new chapter in her international career — that of the undisputed starting goalkeeper for the Canadian women's team, which hosts South Korea on Sunday at Toronto's BMO Field in an international friendly. That game serves as preparation for July's CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico, which is the qualifying competition for the 2023 FIFA World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The CONCACAF qualifiers will be Canada's first major tournament since the retirement of veteran goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé in April. With Labbé out of the picture, it'll now be up to Sheridan, who has 21 caps since her international debut in 2016, to help carry this team forward.
Coach Bev Priestman gave Sheridan a public vote of confidence last week when she named her roster for the South Korea match, reiterating that the No. 1 goalkeeper's job rests in her hands.
Not making comparisons with Labbé
"I wouldn't say it adds any pressure, but honestly it gives me a lot of confidence that someone like Bev would say that and be really confident in her own mind about that," Sheridan told CBC Sports. "Ultimately, as much as I always want to perform and be the best I can be, now I want to put it out there for her and for the team.
"Bev going out on a limb for me, it makes me want to play harder for her."
For Sheridan, this moment has been a long time in coming after serving as Labbé's backup for six years. She's routinely been one of the best goalkeepers in the NWSL since coming into the league in 2017 out of the University of Clemson. But her pathway to the starting job for Canada had been blocked by Labbé, who was one of the gold-medal team's key figures in Tokyo last summer.
Sheridan admits she has "massive shoes to fill."
"Steph was an incredible leader and the way she looks at the game and reviews the game, works with players off the field was so impressive, and that's the biggest thing I'll take away from working with her," Sheridan said.
Fans and pundits will no doubt be interested to see if Sheridan can live up to the incredible standards set by Labbé, who earned the nickname "The National Minister of Defence" while playing for Canada.
To Sheridan, though, making such comparisons is a useless exercise.
"I remember having a really in-depth, honest conversation with Steph where she said, 'You shouldn't compare yourself to me, and I'm not going to compare to you.' Because ultimately, we were never going to be like each other, but there were things we could take from each other. That mentality was one of the reasons why she was looked at as one of the best in the world and why she is who she is," Sheridan said.
WATCH | Sheridan makes big save:
Much to Sheridan's credit, she never grew bitter about having to play second fiddle for so long or the lack of opportunities with Canada while Labbé was the starter. Instead, she maintained a philosophical attitude.
"It's really easy to be angry about it. I've worked really hard with a mental performance coach and sports psychologists, and I've realized getting angry isn't going to benefit me in any way," Sheridan said. "It's not easy. It does suck, I won't lie about it. It's hard. I don't think any goalkeeper will sit here and say, 'I'm happy to be sitting on the bench.' We're all competitive and we want to be playing.
"The relationship that you have with the other goalkeepers is so vital to creating that level-headedness within the team. If I didn't have a strong relationship with Steph, I could have been a bit more bitter about it. But I've worked really hard on that mental side."
Aside from Sheridan, there are three other goalkeepers currently in camp with the Canadian team: Sabrina D'Angelo (11 international appearances) and uncapped youngsters Anna Karpenko and Lysianne Proulx. Sheridan is the most experienced of the quartet, which means it's up to her to set the tone and continue to nurture a culture of competitiveness amongst the goalkeepers that Labbé and fellow veteran Erin McLeod established.
"They created it and for me it's about maintaining it now because it's worked really well for us," Sheridan said. "Sabrina and I want that camaraderie but also that competitiveness, and have that balance, and create that environment with the new goalkeepers, and establish the standards of what it needs to be for us to succeed.
"Steph and Erin laid the groundwork, so I don't have to create anything. It's just about maintaining it."