The breakout MLS star talks shop with Eight by Eight’s Robert Kehoe

Chicago Fire

Photo: Chicago Fire

Going in to the 2014 MLS campaign, the name Harrison Shipp didn”t mean much to American soccer fans. But after an impressive opening season, where the Chicago area native started twenty-six matches, scored seven goals, with six assists, and was a leading candidate to win Rookie of the Year, word has gotten around. Reflecting on a challenging year of immense growth, Shipp is moving forward with confidence, hungry to bring a storied MLS franchise back to the top of the league. He recently spoke with Eight by Eight’s Robert Kehoe about his first year in the league, offseason plans, and ambitions for what he hopes will be a long career ahead.

Robert Kehoe III: A year ago you were going into your rookie season, so how have things changed since then?

Harry Shipp: I definitely think I’ve grown a lot as a person and a player. The first couple months with the Fire were totally new and a little strange, but I absorbed a lot of knowledge and I feel confident about this offseason and the year ahead.

In 2014 you were a Rookie of the Year favorite. Obviously Tesho Akendele had a terrific second half and won the award, but you gained a lot of recognition and respect in a very short period of time. What are your thoughts on how last year played out in that regard?

It was definitely a rocky year for us as a team. You can’t really put it any other way. But for me, the playing experience was invaluable and I’m really thankful I was able to show what I can do.

Was it hard to stay motivated last year when an MLS Cup was so far out of reach?

I’ve never been on a losing team, so through high school, club and college I went into every game expecting to win. This season was a challenge not only because we struggled to get results, but we also struggled to keep possession, which is a big part of my game. Because of that lot of matches we needed to try to hit teams on the counter, which isn’t really my strength. Either way, it was a good learning experience, and I spent a lot of time after practice working with coaches on what they were looking for. 

With regard to your strengths, you’re very gifted with the ball and very purposeful with your passing; you don’t just keep the ball moving, you like to get it moving in the right direction.

Yeah, that stuff takes time and we changed personnel so much that it was hard to gain continuity, but I think I was able to gain more trust with my teammates as the season went on.

Last time we spoke you talked about the broader perception that American players lack the ability to play in a creative midfield role. How much does your desire to change the perception of American creativity motivate you and how much added pressure do you feel when you’re in that position?

There’s a lot of pressure, and I love that. You always wonder if a team would just go and buy a foreign player because they’re the ones who can supposedly do the job, but I wouldn’t change what I want to do and I enjoy the pressure.

Last year you were featured in Chipotle’s “Homegrown” series, where you were obviously pretty shy around the camera and your teammates were happy to heckle a young rookie about that. What was that like?

They had fun giving me grief, but they realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t really what I’m about. I absolutely hated being filmed. I don’t like being in the spotlight, or the feeling of entitlement that can come with it. I just want to do my job and help the team win, and especially being a younger guy I felt a little awkward with that kind of attention. Still, I’m sure I’ll give some rookie the same grief when I’m a little older.

What was the college to pro transition like for you? How have you recalibrated your approach to daily life?

Yeah, it can be pretty boring compared to being at Notre Dame where I was always busy handling soccer and school, while trying to have something of a social life. As a pro it’s pretty easy to get eight hours of sleep every night and always be focused on preparing your body to play at the highest level. It’s much easier than being in college.

What do you do with your free time?

I love to cook now, which is good cause I’m taking full responsibility for what’s going into my body. I like to golf too, which helps me get my mind off soccer and decompress in a way that’s active and competitive, but online casino not so active that I’m losing energy for training or matches. Being from the Chicago area, I always have somewhere to go and somebody to see.

Obviously you aren’t Derrick Rose, but do you get recognized around the city? What’s the celebrity status of an MLS player like in 2015?

I certainly don’t get treated like Derrick Rose, but at soccer specific events I usually get a lot of attention. I went to Grant Park to watch some of the U.S. World Cup matches and a lot of people wanted to take pictures with me. Because of the Chicago connection I also run into people who know my family and friends, or guys I played against in club or high school. That’s kinda cool.

On that note, you’re from Lake Forest, so how does it feel to grow up watching your heroes, like Piotr Nowak and Chris Armas, then play in the same colors for your hometown team?

It’s been great. To see my parents and friends after every game is something I almost take for granted, but it’s certainly made the transition to MLS less dramatic and allowed me to focus on the soccer without having to learn a new city and all that comes with that. But to be perfectly honest, from a club standpoint it’s been hard having such an emotional connection to the Fire and knowing how successful they were in the past. I definitely feel an added sense of responsibility to the history of the club having watched them build a storied tradition growing up. Right now we have a long way to go compared to what it used to be like.

How do you balance that emotional connection with your goals on the field?

It’s tough because sometimes it almost feels like the club has lost credibility with the fans. I obviously care about how I’m playing on the field, but more than anything I want the Fire to be revered and respected throughout the city. I’m in a unique position in that regard. Most pros don’t really have a long-term connection to wherever they’re playing, whereas for me I would rather play for the Fire than anybody else.

The issue of loyalty has been talked about in other domestic leagues in the States. Do you think that’s something MLS could improve?

The biggest problem is that players don’t have much choice in where they play. Just the fact that the league controls player movement so much puts a lot of guys in position where they feel guarded about developing any emotional connection to the cities that they’re playing. I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re pawns of the league, but you can definitely say that the club’s goals are set below the league’s goals.

Where do you think things are going with collective bargaining in MLS?

I think it’s a complicated time to be a young MLS player. There are a lot of issues that are easy to talk about on the surface, but when you start to dig deeper into it, are very complicated. I think the potential benefits, for someone like myself over the next ten years are pretty expansive. The steps that the league and union take this year are going to shape MLS for the next 10 to 15 years, and some of those changes, we’re hoping, are pretty fundamental changes and philosophical changes for how players are treated in this league. I think the good thing about what we have so far is that young players like myself and players like Jeff Larentowicz, who have been in this league for 10-15 years, are all on the same wavelength and on the same page, and from what I’ve heard that was different than five years ago. Now I think everyone has the same goals in mind.

Given your sense of loyalty and responsibility to the Fire, and also your personal ambitions as a player, what would you think about playing for another club say three or four years from now?

I think it’s hard to imagine that far down the line. I’m so focused on improving this offseason and putting the Fire in the best position to succeed, so thinking about three or four years from now is pretty overwhelming. I’m just dedicated to working at the craft wherever I’m playing.

Now that you’re in the league competing against people you used to watch on TV, did you ever have these “wow” moments playing on the same field as so and so?

The first time playing in New York against Henry. He was in his prime when I was in middle school and I used to wear that maroon Arsenal jersey, probably twice a week, with his name and number.

Any other experiences like that?

Definitely playing against Landon, and Frederico Higuain has been one of my favorite MLS players, so playing against him was pretty cool.

I know you admire the current crop of Spanish midfielders, but who are other players you try to emulate?

I think Luca Modric is a world-class player who get’s overlooked by a lot of people. Especially now that he’s at Real Madrid, where there are so many flashy high paid players, I love the way he holds them all together.

What are the areas of your game you think you need to improve?

Defensively for sure. In the attack I think I’m still trying to figure out when it’s the right time to go for the deep penetrating pass, which I think I tried to force too much last year. I also need to improve my attacking in the final third, being more clinical in creating a half yard for a shot or pass. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve been focusing on in offseason training.

With that in mind, what have you been up to this offseason?

The Fire just opened their new indoor facility, which is really close to where I live, so that’s been great to have a place to workout with some of my teammates. I spent a few weeks in Colorado with my Dad’s side of the family. Then I’m hoping to get a training stint in Europe for a few weeks. (Shipp was exploring the possibility of training with Atletico Madrid, but the Fire are currently training in England.)

What about the future? You have a finance degree from one of the best schools in the country … so finance? Front office? Coaching?

Yeah, obviously I hope to play for a long time, but I’ve always thought about coaching on some level. I love immersing myself in the tactical and technical side of the game. Front office work is certainly an interesting possibility for me too, helping a sports franchise on the financial side of their organization. I’ve also thought about getting my MBA at a school like Harvard, University of Chicago or Northwestern. But right now I’m leaving every door open and I’ll see how the next five or ten years go and then reevaluate from there.

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