They have every right to be hot. After seeing their club consistently place among MLS’s best in their first 10 years of existence, Fire supporters have had basically nothing to cheer about this decade. Chicago have qualified for the playoffs only once in the six years since Denis Hamlett was dismissed after leading the team to consecutive Eastern Conference Championship appearances in 2008 and 2009, and just endured two particularly soul-sucking years under ex-head coach Frank Yallop.
The Fire have been the worst team in MLS since the start of 2014, amassing just 66 points – less than one per game – in that span. One of the few bright spots in Bridgeview was Shipp, a Homegrown signing possessing three qualities that make up the holy trinity of hype: Young, American, No. 10.
Shipp had a very solid rookie campaign, racking up seven goals and six assists while playing all over the attack for a hapless Fire team in 2014. He continued to bounce around last year, with Yallop forcing him out wide more and more often after bringing in Designated Player Shaun Maloney to man the middle. Maloney didn’t even make it to the six-month mark of the 2015 season, leaving in August after making just 14 MLS appearances. Yallop didn’t last much longer, getting the boot in September.
Despite the upheaval (positional and otherwise), Shipp still managed to have some success in 2015, recording three goals and eight assists – third in the league among players 24 or under, trailing only FC Dallas’ Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz – in 33 appearances.
He was widely expected to be a major part of the club under new GM Nelson Rodriguez and first-year head coach Veljko Paunovic in 2016, with our very own Armchair Analyst writing not even two weeks ago about how excited he was to see Shipp as a true No. 10 for a full season.
So Saturday’s news was a pretty serious shock to the system. Here’s a 24-year-old American attacking talent, a Chicago kid, a potential building block for the club, sent to Montreal for targeted and general allocation money just as he looked set to be handed the keys to the car.
Fire fans had one question:
My theory? Paunovic used a high-pressing, active style in leading Serbia to the Under-20 World Cup title last summer, and is likely to try to implement that setup in Chicago. Shipp, for all his talent, isn’t the most athletic player, and I’m guessing the Fire don’t see him as a good fit in that system (whether or not that notion is correct is up for discussion; he plays a different position, but defensive mid Dax McCarty is no Adonis, and he did alright in the Red Bulls’ high-press last year).
The Fire will replace Shipp with a new No. 10, likely one who they think will fit better in a high-press setup. There’s no name available just yet, but a source familiar with the situation indicated that Paunovic and Rodriguez, who acknowledged on Saturday that the Shipp trade was “more emotional than most,” are targeting a European attacking midfielder in his late 20’s who would likely be signed using some of the targeted allocation money Chicago have stashed this winter.
The source said that the Fire are aiming to have that player signed by the start of the season on March 6. Whether or not they make that deadline is somewhat immaterial, however. Chicago fans might not like it, but Paunovic and Rodriguez are playing the long game. If it takes a few extra weeks to land their guy, so be it.
This doesn't mean that the Fire have given up on building from within. In 19-year-old Collin Fernandez they have another talented Homegrown attacking midfielder that they like -- and one who's largely outplayed Shipp over the first three weeks of training camp. He may, someday, be the guy this team is built around.
Might Shipp have been that guy for Chicago? We’ll never know. Truth be told, he didn’t get much of a chance. Paunovic and Rodriguez certainly didn’t think he had what it took, however, and, no matter how frustrating it may be for Fire fans, they deserve time to find his replacement and construct their core before the rest of us rush to judgment.