Only six months ago, Harry Shipp received plaudits from media and coaches alike after an outstanding home performance verse the New York Red Bulls. Now, he’s marooned to the bench, if he’s lucky enough to make the 18, with his last significant first team minutes coming in mid-July.
Shipp’s descent from #6 on MLS’s 24 under 24 list to S2 stopgap has been as steady as it’s been drastic. Finishing his first two seasons at his boyhood club Chicago Fire with a combined 10 goals and 14 assists, Shipp looked like the cornerstone of the team’s rebuilding process. But after a front office overhaul following the Fire’s last place 2015 campaign, the playmaking midfielder found himself unceremoniously traded to the Montreal Impact. There, his possession oriented style clashed with his new club’s counter attacking system, resulting in only two goals and three assists from 27 appearances. Despite a bright start with a 2017 Sounders team that looked more suited to his style of play, all signs show that he is now out of the team’s plans. With only two games left, he’s amassed 16 appearances, more than 10 fewer his total from any previous year.
How did it come to this? As always with soccer, the situation is fluid. Team formation/system, injuries, and a harsh salary cap have all likely played their roles.
A pragmatist’s approach would say that soccer is a simple game, and that good players find a way to make their mark no matter the system. While this is true of the best in the sport, role players often live and die by how well a style of play boosts their strengths and hides their weaknesses. Shipp’s strengths are vision, passing, and touch. His weaknesses are speed and strength. As such, he’s going to stay central even when deployed on the wing. Without the pace to beat people in the open field, and with an assured calmness in tight spaces, he operates best in an overloaded midfield, sucking defenders inward before finding more athletic teammates in the newly opened space.
His ability to do exactly that, as well as to find positive link play where others may lose possession, contributed to goals against against NYCFC, D.C. United, and New England Revolution. Unfortunately, the Sounders have lacked the athletic finishers to make this system lethal. Starting Shipp, Lodeiro, and Dempsey in the front four leaves room for only one attacker who can consistently get in behind the backline. That attacker was Jordan Morris, who’s only scored three goals this year despite averaging 0.8 shots a game from inside the penalty box.
Before Leerdam’s arrival, a lack of consistent production from the right back position only compounded Morris cold finishing. In Shipp’s 10 starts this year, five different right backs have started (Svensson, Fisher, Delem, Roldon, and Evans.) The rotating cast hampered production from that side of the field, leaving Jones as the only consistently productive athletic outlet for the team. Without those necessary outlets for distribution, attacking playmakers were forced to look for goals themselves, where Shipp’s finishing lagged behind Dempsey’s and Lodeiro’s.
A bevy of nagging injuries have only made matters worse for Shipp. After hurting his ankle in pre-season, Shipp suffered a strained hip flexor in May and a broken hand in July. While these sorts of injuries happen in a long season, they can hamper a player’s production, as was the case with Jordan Morris’s ankle problems and Christian Roldan playing in a cast. For a player who doesn’t have much athleticism to spare, Shipp’s injuries may have cost him a step he could ill afford to lose.
Still, it’s hard to imagine how a player with the highest passing percentage of any Sounder who has started in the front four this year is having such a hard time breaking into the 18. In fact, the Sounders averaged 1.5 goals a game when Shipp started, more than the 1.4 averaged over the course of the season. While that stat is inflated by the three goals scored after he was subbed off against D.C. United, it should be roughly evened out by the three scored after he subbed on against the Revolution. While 1.5 goals per game isn’t a blazing pace by any imagination, the Sounders struggles without Shipp make it hard to pinpoint him as the problem.
But with the league injecting heavy doses of allocation money into GMs pockets every year, not being the problem isn’t enough. Six-figure players such as Shipp are expendable, easily replaced by new signings bought down under the salary cap with Targeted Allocation Money such as Rodriguez and Leerdam. In fact, general managers who don’t spend heavily on mid-tier earners could be labeled irresponsible for refusing to spend what looks like an ever-replenishing resource. Meanwhile, homegrown players and S2 signings provide rare relief from the MLS salary cap and the possibility for the club to rake in money should they move on to bigger and better things. All of these factors make Kovar, Delem, and Wingo a much bigger bang for your buck than Shipp despite their being only a year younger. The salary earned from Shipp’s early successes, coupled with the loss of his homegrown status after leaving Chicago have forced him to become an immediate impact type of player despite his relatively young age.
All that’s to say professional sports are cruel. Shipp wasn’t the first and won’t be the last promising player to have a career derailed just as it’s starting. Not long ago, he looked like one of the few playmaking maestros in the MLS to have come up through a U.S. youth system, a la Benny Feilhaber or Sacha Kljestan. Those rooting for a more aesthetically pleasing American game will surely hope he gets another chance.