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Abandoning Shipp Too Soon?

When the Chicago Fire announced Harry Shipp had been traded to Montreal, there was an understandable emotional response from the fan base. But a closer examination shows the club may have forfeited one of the most valuable players in the league in terms of potential, production and cost.

Was Chicago's decision to move Harry Shipp to Montreal a mistake?
Was Chicago's decision to move Harry Shipp to Montreal a mistake?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: This is the first entry of a periodic column that will appear from Shane Murray, Chicago Fire beat reporter for Murray will be published on Hot Time throughout the season when his work is not featured on the official MLS website.

Much of the critical debate surrounding Harry Shipp's shock move from the Chicago Fire to the Montreal Impact has focused on him lacking the physicality and athleticism to succeed at the highest level.

Most comment supporting the controversial move has centered around a belief that Shipp is somehow "unathletic", and unsuited to operating in the high press, high tempo game that first-year head coach Veljko Paunovic is expected to employ this season.

While the 24-year-old may not be the quickest or most dynamic box-to-box terrier, Shipp has shown enough grit, determination and endeavor to dispel any concerns over his quality as a professional soccer player.

So much so, that just a matter of weeks ago, general manager Nelson Rodriguez highlighted him as a potential candidate to become a part of the core of the team for years to come.

Looking back at Shipp's significant impact in his first two years with his hometown club, the evidence and facts would suggest that a player of Shipp's talent and aptitude has all the attributes to prosper in a variety of roles and formations, given the right players around him.

And I say "the right players around him", because it is clear that Shipp has been a member of the two worst teams in Fire history, and statistically the worst team in MLS over the last two years with a return of just 0.97 points per game.

Having players around you like an overrated Juan Luis Anangono, an ageing Florent Sinama-Pongolle, a misfiring Quincy Amarikwa, a USL caliber striker in Matt Fondy and a mostly injured, half fit Mike Magee, and it is a surprise that Shipp's creativity and invention reaped as much as it did.

Shipp is most at home in a possession-dominant team, but the Fire typically struggled on that front in most games and he cannot be solely blamed for that.

His perceived lack of athleticism wasn't deemed a problem when he came to prominence with several clutch performances as Notre Dame swept to their first NCAA College Cup in 2013. His alleged inability to dig in and contribute defensively didn't stop a plethora of MLS clubs chasing his signature out of college before he realized a dream and signed a Homegrown deal with his boyhood heroes.

The stunning hat-trick against New York Red Bulls that announced his arrival in MLS was met with understandable joy and optimism, as it seemed the USA had perhaps unearthed a player capable of putting to bed the notion that US players aren't good enough to play as a bona fide No. 10.

Shipp went on to score seven goals and six assists in his rookie year in a struggling team, a better return than eventual Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele, who managed seven goals and three assists playing in a more advanced striker's role in a much better team that eased comfortably into the playoffs while the Fire stuttered to ninth in the Eastern Conference.

The pair's second year saw Shipp contribute to 11 goals (three goals/eight assists) to Akindele's six (five goals/one assist) as Shipp confirmed his ability to pick a pass and find his teammates in goal scoring positions time and time again.

Ten goals and 14 assists in 66 games as an out-of-position winger/midfielder in a team short of quality and confidence is a decent return no matter how you look at it. Figures $1million+ flop Shaun Maloney would have been happy with, I'm sure. The fact that Shipp hit these numbers from a mostly peripheral role on the left or right wing, in an underperforming, disjointed team, will tell you much about Shipp's ability and potential.

With three goals and two assists in 14 regular season games, it quickly became clear that highly-vaunted DP Maloney could not produce the quality he had shown at Celtic, Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic and that the Fire already had a "young Maloney" on their hands in Harry Shipp.

That he wasn't given the opportunity to prove his worth in Paunovic's overhauled roster is something that both Shipp and the fans will always lament, but in my opinion the Lake Forest native will flourish when surrounded by better players.

I believe he will get to prove that at Montreal, where he will find a like-minded creator in Ignacio Piatti, with the ageless Didier Drogba looking to capitalize on his incisive through balls and dangerous crosses.

Much has been made about the progress of fellow local product Collin Fernandez, 19, who is believed to have impressed Paunovic during preseason. While both are local and young, Shipp and Fernandez are different types of midfielders and it would be unfair to compare.

However, it is unlikely Fernandez's progress will see him fight for a regular starting spot this year, and it would be unfair to expect him to unseat veteran Razvan Cocis, Matt Polster, Michael Stephens and whatever new CAM they bring in if, indeed, they do bring someone in.

I'd be very surprised if Fernandez sees more game time than any of the players above, and certainly less game time than Shipp whether at Montreal or if he had stayed in Chicago. At 19, he has undoubted talent and his time will come, but it brings up the question why Paunovic and Rodriguez were so quick to trade such a valuable asset as Shipp, with no obvious replacement at the ready. Especially so if the rumored compensation was north of the $100,000 TAM and GAM widely reported.

Looking at the trade in simple, fiscal terms, Shipp's guaranteed salary was approximately $112,500 in 2015, which did not go against the Fire's salary cap as he was on the supplemental roster. As such, the club would look to benefit to the tune of up to, and I'll be generous, $250,000 for offloading him. $250,000 for a player who averaged five goals and seven assists a season, led the team in assists in his two seasons in MLS and who, you'd imagine, would only prosper in the more structured and ambitious Paunovic era.

You've got to ask why such a controversial decision was made.

When compared to the guaranteed salaries of DPs Maloney ($1,586,000), David Accam ($720,937), Kennedy Igboananike ($900,000), and high earners Magee ($467,500) and Patrick Nyarko ($215,000), Shipp's better than average return on a fraction of those figures looks like excellent value for money.

Add in the significant impact his presence has on connecting with and inspiring the local fanbase and his broad appeal in publicity and marketing campaigns, and the decision becomes even more questionable.

Paunovic himself has admitted that if there had been no interest shown in Shipp by Montreal he would still be a Chicago player. It is sad that the lure of reaping $200,000 - $250,000 in MLS funny money proved sufficiently strong to prise away a talent with so much ability and potential.

Rodriguez and Paunovic have been given the keys to construct their own roster by owner Andrew Hauptman, and they have not shied away from making many bold moves. The relative unknown quantity of many of the new additions has inspired both optimism and fear, but as with this latest move, the success and longevity of their tenure will be judged by results on the field.

Only time will tell if this has been a masterstroke by the Fire front office or if the initial outrage by fans was justified.