The tattered remains of Fire fandom - the dead-enders and contrarians and dewy, hopeful newbies - got treated to a lesson in the new/old reality of #cf97, the-MLS-franchise-which-plays-its-home-games-in-Bridgeview this weekend. In a move which sent shock waves through the MLS commentariat, the club dealt Harry Shipp for, if rumors are to be believed, just south of $100k in league allocation money.
If you're reading this, surely you're familiar with Mr. Shipp's resume: Harry the Hook, the only tangible Homegrown success story in club history, and one of the most prolific HG players in a recent league history obsessed with such metrics. Playing for the two worst Fire teams in club history, under arguably the worst Fire coaching staff in history, Shipp still managed to rate as one of the best attacking creators in the league.
If you've watched this team at all since 2014, the Fire parts you've enjoyed were odds-on to feature young Harrison Shipp. And now he's gone, for a number that's close to a rounding error in the world of professional soccer. Let's take a closer look at this deal:
Why it could make sense
- There's a reason Harry was an impact sub for most of his career at Notre Dame. For all his obvious genius in space and with the ball at his feet, modern pressing football has progressed to the point that it's difficult to justify the kind of creative latitude would best fit for a player like Harry. 2015 saw a fit, determined Shipp ground down to a nub by midseason. Long story short, Harry's not the kind of player who's going run 15 kilometers over 90 minutes twice a week. If that's what's needed ...
- Shipp is a Homegrown player now, but his first contract expires at years' end. If Harry was making noises about getting out, it's best to sell him right away, before word gets around the league that a top-15 chance creator is about to go on the restricted free-agent market.
- Harry's a special talent, and deserves to be nurtured somewhere he will be featured. Velko Paunovic's system is much more 11-pull-together, and is perhaps less reliant on the moments of orthogonal, individual brilliance in which Shipp specializes. Collin Fernandez has impressed in Paunovic's new system, and may step right into Harry's shoes as the Homegrown attacker who lights the league on fire.
Why all that is bullshit
- Whatever Harry's shortcomings, he's been the best player for long stretches of the last two years. This despite the fact that inconsistency has been the only consistency in his first-team career with the Fire: He's been played all over midfield and attack, often in hilariously illogical or outmoded tactical systems. And he's adapted intelligently to every change, working hard on fitness to compete on the flanks, sharpening his finishing when asked to play closer to goal.
- Anything around $100,000 allocation (as is rumored) is an absolute joke in terms of the valuation of players in the international market. Harry Shipp was a supporter-turned-star, a productive and entertaining young player whose transfer value transfermarkt.de estimated at around $900k. 100k against a total cap around $4MM. The Fire needed cap space so badly that they sold their Homegrown star for a single-year rebate worth roughly 1/40th the team's total salary budget? Even at $200k, this deal doesn't make sense to me.
- The Fire have 21 men under contract right now; there's very nearly the same number of days left before the home and season opener. In other words, they need to sign four players to have a minimally-compliant MLS roster. Why couldn't they have waited until the roster at least boasted a solid gameday 18 before shuffling Shipp off for spare change?
- I'd love to see Collin Fernandez march into the starting XI and establish himself as a burgeoning club legend, but does that seem the kind of eventuality we should pin many hopes upon? Fernandez is promising, and seems to be a better fit athletically for the kind of space-control pressing football Paunovic wants to play ... but why does this mean Harry needs to leave, exactly?
- Shipp's reaction to the deal makes it clear he was not consulted about the trade. Let's imagine that the front office is being perfectly transparent about their motivations for this deal - that it's going to be better for both the Fire and Harry, etc - why wouldn't they at least ask Shipp what he thought of the idea? Why wouldn't you give the local kid - the kid whose childhood bedroom was papered with heroes from the club's glory years - a chance to voice his opinion? Why wouldn't you give him an opportunity to say "I don't care who's come up from the Academy, or who you're buying from overseas; I'm going to fight for a place on the field wearing this badge"?
The perfect blankness of the new
Viewed from a slightly higher altitude, the Shipp trade doesn't look as inexplicable. From his first official acts as General Manager of the Chicago Fire, Nelson Rodriguez has performed an institutional lobotomy, removing surgically every employee - on- or off-field - whose memories or allegiance extended back beyond current owner Andrew Hauptman's takeover.
On 22 November, Rodriguez donned his Dia de los Muertos finest, told himself he's the smartest man in the room, then presided over the latest Annual Fire Sacking Festival. This year's victims included basically every remaining member of the technical staff, as well as team administrator Ron Stern and equipment men Charles Raycroft and Alan Araujo.
Ron Stern is 'original Fire,' the last remaining employee from the first staff in 1998. He's the only team administrator in team history. Then there was the trade of Patrick Nyarko for some league money and a draft spot. It's all of a piece - the people who remember are getting gone, and quickly.
This is the equivalent of firing the bus driver because one's worldwide tour of Finland failed to sell tickets. Everything about the concept has been shown to be a failure, but the only victims are the suckers who believed, or the suckers who kept their head down and did their jobs. In their place, tabula rasa, a horde of try-hards trying harder without any special experience.
Fortunately, Chicago is a market without a dense, nearly impenetrable series of local cultures which interlock into a mind-bogglingly complex composite. Wait - not without. WITH. ... with a dense, nearly impenetrable ... oh.
So every player, coach, and staff position who had an emotional attachment to the Fire's earlier, more-successful incarnations has been sent packing - who benefits from that kind of separation? Is that something the supporters have demanded? Is it something the players have initiated?
You have the answer for those questions in the social media volcano which greeted news of the trade, in Harry Shipp's shocked tears, and in Ron Stern's stoic humiliation: No.
These older, higher aspirations - for a true club connected to the community, an example of the traditional civic swagger of Chicago, for hope and delight and beauty - are cast aside for marketing activations and best-in-class business models. Authenticity suffocated by an ever-encroaching plastic emptiness.
So, who, then? Who benefits when the Fire retain no one who feels loyal to the badge?