TUKWILA, Wash. — Just over two years ago, the Sounders traded allocation money to the Montreal Impact in exchange for attacking midfielder Harry Shipp. The move was an early indication of what would become a pattern in the Garth Lagerwey era: signing high-potential players whose transfer value had dipped either due to poor recent form (Waylon Francis, Will Bruin, Jonathan Campbell, Shipp) or contracts that their club wanted to unload (Joevin Jones, Gustav Svensson, Kim Kee-hee).
Most of those transfers have worked out well for the shrewd general manager and his perennially playoff-bound club. Svensson and Kim quickly became above-average MLS starters; Jones put in two stellar seasons before getting a significant raise to play overseas; and Bruin averaged nine goals per season in his first two years with the club.
But while the bulk of Lagerwey’s bargain bin signings have made an instant impact upon arrival, a few never made the grade. Calum Mallace came to the Sounders via a summer trade after a down half-season at Montreal, but failed to register a single minute on the field before Seattle declined his contract option at the end of the year. More notably, the Sounders brought in one-time MLS all-star Waylon Francis to compete with Nouhou for the starting left back spot, but the Costa Rican international only made five starts on the season and ended up as a third string reserve after the Sounders acquired TAM left back Brad Smith on loan during the summer transfer window.
Seven months after Shipp became a Sounder, he seemed a likely candidate to join that latter group of players who never made the mark in Rave Green. Then, following a run of inconsistent playing time, the Chicago homegrown product found himself back in the line-up for a mid-summer match against bottom-of-the-table D.C. United. His career seemed to hang suddenly in the balance of an otherwise relatively unimportant contest.
That match ended up hurting his stock more than helping it. Head coach Brian Schmetzer subbed Shipp out 54 minutes into a dreadful team performance that had the Sounders in a 3-1 hole. After the attacking midfielder came off, Seattle mounted a furious comeback and ended up notching a 4-3 victory. In the next 13 matches, Shipp only logged 15 total minutes and failed to make the 18 on seven different occasions.
Lagerwey would go on to ostensibly describe Shipp’s poor form as a key factor in Seattle’s slow start to 2017. In answering the media’s frequent questions about why the team struggled out of the gate that year, the general manager often pointed to missing talent at the right back and left mid positions, the latter of which had been Shipp’s spot to win when he signed with the Sounders.
Curiously though, despite getting earmarked as a failed signing halfway through his first season, Shipp has remained with the team. In fact, the now third-year Sounder has fended off challenges for attacking mid minutes from both exciting young prospects (Aaron Kovar, Henry Wingo, and Alex Roldan) and high-pedigree veterans (Magnus Wolff Eikrem, Brad Evans, and Clint Dempsey).
Lagerwey made note of Shipp’s turnaround when he addressed the “slow starts” narrative once again in 2018, this time during a win streak that Shipp had helped spur. “From the ’16 team, we changed 13 players. When you try to integrate 13 players at once, that takes time. We got two of them wrong, so that’s not a bad hit rate either. You’re not going to get 100% of them right. And I wouldn’t even say we got two them wrong because I think our answer was Harry Shipp just wasn’t ready yet. He appears like he’s ready now.”
For Shipp’s part, a keen sense of self-awareness has guided his performances through the ups and downs. When asked if his style of play would change this year now that he’s likely to be a sub for the field-stretching Jordan Morris on the right wing, Shipp said to Sounder at Heart, “No, I think if I tried to play the way Jordan plays, I wouldn’t be very successful. I know what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not good at.”
Shipp went on to note that when he stretches the field, he aims to push and pull the defense out of position more than to get on the ball and punish teams directly in the way that Morris might. That heady and selfless style of play stems from a broader mindset of utilizing his tactical awareness to affect matches regardless of where he plays.
“I pride myself on being versatile... Depending on how [the other team] is set up, whether they’re in a back four or five, how their holding mids are tracking guys running through, I’m always trying to think of ways to take advantage, punish teams and try to help us score some goals.”
Off-ball movement and tactical awareness have become vital tools in Shipp’s ongoing battle for minutes. On a roster with creative playmakers such as Nicolas Lodeiro, who has played in a World Cup for Uruguay, and Victor Rodriguez, who mastered his craft at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, Shipp’s technical ability no longer grants him the automatic starting role that it once did during his Chicago days.
“The quality top-to-bottom of the roster is so much different now than even six years ago,” Shipp said. “Being here we’ve got a lot of really good, talented players that could be successful in other places in the world, which for me wasn’t necessarily the case in Chicago the first couple of years.”
That increased competition, particularly among creative attacking midfielders, is reflective of a larger arms race for technical maestros that ratchets up as MLS raises TAM budgets year after year. Now, based on MLSsoccer.com’s preseason line-up predictions, only seven of the league’s teams will start Americans under the age of 30 as advanced creative playmakers in their ideal 11 this season. Of those American playmakers, only the playing style of Chicago’s Djordje Mihailovic is similar to Shipp’s, with both players’ value unequivocally rooted in skill rather than speed.
And while no nation sets out to produce less physically dominant athletes, plenty of countries hope to teach fundamentals well enough that players can use their skills to out-perform their physical limitations. Here, Shipp’s improved performance in an increasingly difficult MLS is a testament to the improvement of American soccer development.
More immediately, Shipp’s presence allows the Sounders to rest players such as Rodriguez and Lodeiro without losing the technical, combination-based style of play that those starters bring to the squad. Few MLS teams possess depth players of Shipp’s quality who don’t require international roster spots.
For Shipp, a third year in Seattle marks a level of security that he’s never had before in the league. “I feel at home,” he said. “It’s the longest tenured place I’ve been now.”
After a tumultuous beginning, few could have predicted such a mutually beneficial relationship between player and club. But with every one-two combination that Shipp pulls off with a teammate in a crowded opposing penalty box, it’s clear that in the end, the timing worked out just right.