BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Much has been made of Chicago Fire's Harry Shipp of late, and for good reason.
That buzz has included comparisons to Mexican legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco, with some calling the 23-year-old playmaker the American counterpart of one of his club's all-time most beloved stars. The similarities are undeniable: Both players find space wherever they can on the pitch. Both see the game well. Both can play the killer pass and, while neither is exceedingly fast, they know how to make the most of what they have.
“He knew what he was good at, and what he wasn't good at,” Shipp told MLSsoccer.com after training on Wednesday. “He made sure he got himself in positions on the field that made it easiest for him to succeed. He was never isolated by himself, having to take players on.”
"I think in terms of body type — I think I weigh a little bit less than he does — but in terms of playing I think he's so clever and I'd say I spend 80 percent of the time during the game just thinking about how I can gain a yard or two of space and I spend a lot of time trying to cleverly set up defenders to maybe think I'm floating in one area of space and then end up in another area of space," Shipp told ExtraTime Radio earlier this week. "Definitely, we're both not the fastest people or most athletic. So you've got to try to be extremely clever in terms in how you can gain a yard or two of space."
That trait shows in Shipp's game, too, as the second-year pro roams throughout the field, finding spaces in which to exploit the opposition. That ability directly led to his first goal of the season in the Fire’s 2-1 loss to San Jose on March 22, when midfielder Joevin Jones slotted a well-placed pass behind the Quakes defense to the feet of an unnoticed Shipp, who calmly finished the chance.
“If the defense knows where I'm going to be, I'm not going to be too effective,” Shipp said. “There's nothing flashy about me, but I think the thing that makes me unpredictable is the spaces I'm going to show up in. The more freedom I have to show up anywhere, it's going to give me that yard or two of space to pick out a pass or pick out a shot.”
Shipp's unpredictability has always been a feature of his game, but he knew coming into the 2015 season that he would need to improve in other areas in order to take things up a level. While many of his teammates took time off at the conclusion of the 2014 season, Shipp stayed hard at work to hone the physical side of his game. Practicing on his own time at the team's newly-constructed facility on the North Side of Chicago, Shipp entered preseason camp more prepared, according to Fire assistant Clint Mathis.
“He definitely came in fitter, he looked stronger, and was leaner,” Mathis said. “He's grown tremendously from what he did for us last year. You saw it right away. Whatever he's done in offseason has definitely helped him.”
That work has already paid dividends for the second-year midfielder, earning him a MLS Goal of the Week nomination and MLS Team of the Week honors. Ever humble, Shipp still looks at those around him as key to his own success.
“I think the better guys you surround me with, the more effective I'm going to be,” Shipp said. “The smarter [my teammates’] runs are, the easier [they] make it for me to pick out those killer passes."
While he shied away from the Blanco comparison, Mathis still sees infinite potential in the young Fire midfielder.
“I think Harry's a very good player,” he said. “He's still young and still learning, but what he brings with a ball at his feet ... you know he has those glimpses where he does some magical stuff. What Harry's done in the attacking part of the field has been very good for us.”
Shipp acknowledges that if he's going to continue to progress, be it through continued accolades in the league or an eventual call-up to the US national team, it will be a process. As a player with a maturity well beyond his years, that's something he's willing to endure.
“It's not going to happen in one night, it's not going to happen in one year. But I think if you grow in confidence every year, and you grow in the responsibility given to you, you can make that happen,” he said. “My goal is to have more responsibility. I want that pressure to create chances every game. I want people to lean on me to create things. The more I feel that pressure, the higher I tend to raise the level of my game.”