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To Sail a Shipp: Goodbye to one of MLS’s most interesting careers

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Harry Shipp’s absence leaves a hole in the Sounders roster, and in our hearts.

MLS: New York City FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Shipp’s surprise retirement has sent shockwaves through the Seattle Sounders community. Players, fans, coaches, and management have reacted to the news in different ways: sadness for the club’s loss, happiness for his future pursuing an MBA from Northwestern University, and amongst the most cynical of supporters, frustration with the timing and its implications for the team’s salary cap and roster construction.

The varying reactions are fitting for a decision that is on the one hand baffling given his age and apparent job security with the club (after re-signing Shipp this offseason, Garth Lagerwey said “There will always be a role for Harry,”) and on the other hand completely on-brand for a player who made a career by staying one step ahead of the game.

But for all the different interpretations of the abrupt move, one sentiment has remained constant: respect for the player and who he was on and off the field. In the end, teammate Cristian Roldan may have summed up the varying emotions best when he retweeted two separate announcements from the club’s official account. On top of one tweet, Roldan added a single tear emoji; on the other, a goat emoji (for Greatest of all Time).

This may all seem like a lot of hubbub for a player who only spent three years with the club and whose largely journeyman career likely peaked with a Rookie-of-the-Year nod in 2014. And maybe it is.

But even beyond the intrigue of his sudden retirement right before a controversial tournament and right after participating in contentious negotiations over a new CBA, Shipp’s career was notable in that it wound through the heart of many of MLS and U.S. Soccer’s most hot-button issues. As a result, he’s often become a lightning rod for debate amongst hardcore fans despite his quiet, and by all accounts, amicable nature.

In 2017, I entered the fray with a FanPost for Sounder at Heart, which became my first piece of writing for the site, and first official soccer writing anywhere. At the time, Shipp was in his darkest hour as a Sounder, often failing to make the 18 after being brought in to become a rotational starter. Throughout the year, I’d read one too many hot takes in various comment sections that derided his signing, and, ever the defender of technical players (re: all of my Underrated Sounders posts), I felt compelled to provide context for his rough start. His subsequent late season/playoff revival was one of the most vindicating moments I’ve had as a sports fan, all of which is really neither here nor there except to say that his success felt important in a time of massive change in MLS and American soccer.

Here’s why:

Shipp had an extremely non-American style of play, at least traditionally speaking. Not only did he lack size and pace — traits that largely defined early eras of MLS and the USMNT — he rarely flashed the fancy footwork or creative 1-v-1 dribbling of an undersized attacker. Instead, he relied on incredible vision and crafty but controlled first touches to take defenders out of the play. When those options weren’t on, he was cool and composed in recycling possession, even under pressure.

While Shipp wasn’t the first American in MLS to feature that style of play, he did it at a time of unprecedented expansion in salary and the foreign talent it could bring in, particularly for attacking midfielders.

In fact, some paint Shipp’s journey from rookie-of-the-year candidate to rotational role player as a let down. But in comparing Chicago’s 2014 team salary of $3,390,587 to Seattle’s 2019 team salary of $13,678,414, one could argue that becoming a crucial attacking mid piece on an MLS Cup-winning team in the TAM era was actually overshooting the mark. Of the three other players nominated for rookie-of-the-year in 2014, only center back Steven Birnbaum accrued more MLS minutes, and no one, not even ROTY winner and striker Tesho Akindele, has put up more career goals plus assists. (And Shipp is the only one to win an MLS Cup.)

Moreover, the cerebral playmaker made his mark with a skillset most akin to what clubs were looking to purchase from abroad with their new wads of cash. In other words, he established himself at a time where his role was being aggressively outsourced to foreign talent.

But not only was Shipp’s success a joy for any hoping to see MLS and American soccer evolve beyond its boot-ball reputation, it also became a feather in the cap of the league’s nascent academy system. While that system still has a long way to go in terms of creating equitable opportunity for players from all parts of the country, Shipp’s career demonstrated a step in the right direction towards producing more technically proficient and tactically astute players.

Even for the Sounders as a club, Shipp’s sometimes rocky road toward steady success had greater implications as it largely mirrored the up-and-down progress of the entire Garth Lagerwey era. Though the GM hit success with a 2016 MLS Cup win, it took until roughly the second half of 2018 (and a massive win streak initiated largely by Shipp’s inclusion in the starting lineup) for the greater Sounders community to embrace the team’s more methodical, ball-on-the-turf build up play and attacking style. When Shipp performed well, it was a key indicator that many of Lagerwey’s philosophies in terms of player acquisitions could work.

For all that, Shipp’s three-year run with the team will be remembered beyond the trophies and the stats. Though he lacked the club longevity of a Brad Evans or a Zach Scott or the scintillating highs of a Steve Zakuani or a Fredy Montero, his status as a Sounders cult hero feels safe. That’s because he combined the work rate and role flexibility of the former group with the creativity and quality of the latter group.

He was a paradox — an “everyman” player with a skillset that was decidedly rare. Whether flipping his hips and shifting angles faster than any pro, let alone human, should have the right to do, picking a pass that would seemingly require X-ray vision, or simply thinking three plays ahead of the game, Shipp could do a lot of things on a soccer field that most can’t.

As he takes his unique set of talents away from the pitch (where he’s already shown his creative thinking has plenty of other uses such as handling union negotiations, providing insight and humility as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, or simply shredding folks at Settlers of Catan), we can only hope he’ll one day return to the American game and once again improve it in ways both big and small.

For now, I’ll bid him adieu with a nod to one of the endless play-on-words his name has inspired over the years (with my own personal twist). Yer a goddamn legend, Harry.