By DAN KARELL
On May 10, 2013, Harrison Shipp was just an average student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame preparing for his upcoming season.
One year and 90 minutes later, Shipp had appropriately announced his arrival in MLS with a hat-trick performance in his club’s first win of the season.
Shipp, signed by the Chicago Fire this past January as a Homegrown Player, has quickly proven to be one of the surprises of the 2014 MLS season and early signs show that he might be a potential star in the making. Using quick movements with and without the ball as well as a poise not often seen in young players, Shipp has earned a place in the Fire starting lineup based on his early season performances, and is an easy choice in this year’s Rookie of the Year sweepstakes.
While most MLS rookies ride the pine for the majority of their first season, Fire head coach Frank Yallop has given Shipp a chance to shine and the 22-year-old former Fighting Irish forward has taken advantage of that.
“I remember saying (to myself) before the season started that I expected to contribute this year,” Shipp told SBI in a phone interview. “Even though I am a young player and the Fire have a lot of guys that are established in this league, I really felt like I was ready to come in and play. I think coming off the last couple of years, having success in college, kind of let me know that I was ready to move on to this level.”
Shipp is coming off a final collegiate season that most soccer players in America could only dream of. After a disappointing defeat in the third round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament to the eventual champion Indiana Hoosiers, Shipp and Notre Dame came back last fall and lost just once all season en route to upsetting Maryland in the title game, 2-1.
Shipp had an assist in the final and was named the co-Most Outstanding Player in the College Cup, capping off an impressive 12-goal, 10-assist season.
The rookie believes that playing in big games like he did in the NCAA Tournament as well as in the semi-annual spring friendlies against the Mexico Under-20 National Team gave him an edge when he joined the professional ranks.
“I think a lot of guys come out from college and aren’t really used to the magnitude of playing in front of a lot of people or playing in games that actually mean a lot,” Shipp said. “For me, although those games maybe didn’t have the attendance or the amount of fans that MLS games have, I still think the intensity and the pressure that was associated with those games, the quality that was on the field, makes you more accustomed to playing.
“You learn to handle the ball pressure on you, and the whole moment and the occasion. You learn how to stay calm when you have the ball in big moments and I think that translates well now so that when I get the ball in games here and there’s lots of pressure on (me), I’m not freaking out, I’m staying calm, looking for the next open guy, and to complete the pass.”
Shipp may have also had a leg-up on some other rookies in preseason training due to the experiences of former Fighting Irish and current Colorado Rapids midfielder Dillon Powers, who Shipp revealed he talks with all the time. The two recently met up in Chicago and Shipp cites Powers, the 2013 MLS Rookie of the Year, as a major influence on his transition into the professional game.
“Having him go through this whole experience last year really helped me because I was able to talk to him while college was still going on so I kind of knew what to expect,” Shipp said of navigating through the professional life style, choosing an agent and understanding the daily demands of being a pro soccer player.
The Lake Forest, Ill. native has also found a comfort level in Chicago thanks to some of his teammates. He currently lives with Fire left back Greg Cochrane, and veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz has taken Shipp under his wing while coming away impressed with the youngster’s contributions and confidence.
“It’s a matter of self-belief,” Larentowicz said. “For some guys, it takes a while to understand the level when they come in and they want to slowly get into the (playing) pool. I think Harry’s just knows what he’s capable of. He has self-belief, and that’s what it takes.
“If he continues to keep doing what he’s doing he’ll be fine (in the future),” Larentowicz added.
With any success in U.S. Soccer circles comes a discussion of a player’s national team credentials, something that’s certainly on Shipp’s mind. But Shipp pointed out a flaw in the system, describing how he had “never gotten a sniff” with any U.S. youth national teams despite his solid performances in college and he believes that part of why that is is due to his physical stature of 5-foot-9.
Still, Shipp has used the perceived lack of notice from U.S. Soccer as motivation to improve throughout his career.
“I always felt like I had the talent but was always overlooked because of lack of athleticism or lack of size or lack of speed,” Shipp said. “Going forward, this year especially, being able to prove myself that although I’m not the fastest, biggest and strongest person, I’m still able to be effective against guys who do have those athletic capabilities.
“Right now, I’m obviously not ready to be with the (U.S. Men’s) National Team, but if I keep developing and broadening my skill level each year it’s something I’d love to do and hopefully it’s a realistic possibility.”
While it’s much too early to determine whether Shipp could feature for the U.S. in future cycles, there’s plenty of reason for hope in Chicago. To go with the hat-trick scored at New York, Shipp has already racked up four assists this season, developing great partnerships with forwards Mike Magee and Quincy Amarikwa.
And as Shipp continues to improve with each performance, the Fire’s fortunes have begun to change, with the club winning two of their last three games. Chicago head coach Frank Yallop – who worked hard with MLS to make sure that the Fire could sign Shipp as a Homegrown player and not lose him to the SuperDraft – likes the player Shipp is now and the one he could become in the not too distant future.
“Harry’s got a really good knack for the game,” Yallop said. “He finds the ball, his first touch is good, he’s got good vision. All those little things that you look for in a young player he has.
“Harry’s a likable kid,” Yallop added later. “He’s really great to coach because whatever you say he listens and wants to do it. He doesn’t fight and argue. For our team, he’s been a joy to have in the locker room and on the field.”