It’s no surprise that Seattle Sounders midfielder Harry Shipp feels somewhat bittersweet going into this weekend’s road match at Chicago Fire. Not only did Shipp grow up in nearby Lake Forest, but he also grew up a fan of the Fire. “I grew up going to games, I grew up going to Toyota Park, Soldier Field back in the day. I always felt like I was kind of a fan and I felt a connection to them.” He still has family and friends in the area, and he expects to see a lot of friendly faces in the stands on Saturday. But Shipp wasn’t just a fan of the Fire — he also played for the club as a Homegrown Player for his first two seasons as a professional.
But big changes in the organization in 2015 saw Shipp traded to the Montreal Impact, which didn’t go down particularly well for fans — and it felt disastrous for Shipp. He’s often spoken about the tough time he had in Montreal last season, and it didn’t help that an away trip to Chicago was one of the first games of the season. “Last year it was right at the beginning of the year, it was one of our first games, so it was a little bit different, I think. I was still coping with leaving and dealing with all that.”
Things are a bit better for Shipp after Seattle traded for him before the 2017 season, and he feels much more confident about his return home. “Over a year removed, I feel good about where I’m at.” The Fire have had so much turnover since Shipp left in 2016 too, so he won’t even be lining up against too many former teammates. He said that he’s working hard in his “utility guy” role for the Sounders right now, hoping to make himself available in any position that the team needs.
Even though Shipp is seen as a bit of utility player, he clearly has strengths that make him better at certain positions. He’s done well for the Sounders on the wing, as well as in a more deep-lying midfield position where he can pull the strings from the middle of the pitch. This position really lets Shipp show off his soccer intelligence, since he can read the game and influence it in a way that more attacking roles might not have.
Just talking to Shipp after training, it’s easy to see that he’s a real student of the game. He described much of what ails his team so far this year, and even has a few suggestions for how to fix it. “You look at every game, we out-possess teams, we out-pass teams two- and three-fold, so it’s kind of frustrating, you know? Especially playing at home, teams have come in and kind of sat back and countered effectively.” He said that in training this week, the team has been trying to solve the problem of getting the right players in the right spots to create and score goals. For him personally, Shipp said “I’m just trying to work and get as much playing time as possible.”
Sentimentality aside, Shipp said that he’s looking forward to the Sounders’ road trip to Chicago, because it might help the team get back to winning ways. He thinks part of why the Sounders struggled in their last two home games was because their opponents arrived at CenturyLink with only one strategy: bunker and counter. “From a pride perspective, teams at home aren’t just going to sit back and counter, they’re going to try and play.”
Shipp hopes that, like in the 3-0 win in LA, the Fire (and later Sporting KC) will try and attack and take risks because they’re at home. “If they play [like that], we can nick some passes and exploit transition and get a couple goals and get ahead instead of always fighting to come back in the second half.” He pointed out that in LA, the Sounders not only kept possession well, but they turned that possession into goals that allowed them to truly control the game.
Despite the wholesale changes that have been made to the Fire’s personnel since he left, he’s kept an eye on his old team. “They’ve got more of a stability, a core of guys playing week in and week out,” Shipp said. “They’ve brought in smart soccer players, guys that have been around the league.” He said their midfield core is very impressive after bringing in MLS veterans Dax McCarty and Juninho, as well as the high-profile DP signing of German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. Shipp sees a lot of confidence coming from this team that wasn’t there last year, and it’s already showing up in some of the results.
He also noted that, while he respects Schweinsteiger, playing against such superstars doesn’t really faze him anymore. He played with a world class striker in Didier Drogba in Montreal last season, but he had already faced a number of stars in his first couple years in the league. “I think the first time I had that in the league was my rookie year playing against Henry, someone I grew up watching, being an Arsenal fan.” To Shipp, it’s just like scouting any other player at this point, but sometimes he does take a step back after a game and think, “oh yeah, that was cool.”
Some unfortunate news for Shipp this weekend is that he won’t have his family there to support him for his first trip home with the Sounders. “My sister is graduating from Vanderbilt this weekend so my whole family is going to be out of town so they won’t be there, but I have a bunch of friends coming.” Many in Chicago still remember him though, and he often receives nice notes from fans on social media that mean a lot to him. “It’s cool, it’ll be nice to see some familiar faces in the crowd.” So even if the players and staff are mostly strangers to him, Shipp is still looking forward to returning to the club that gave him his start.