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MLS Post-Mortem: Why the Chicago Fire needed Harry Shipp to be playoff contenders

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MLS is less than a month from returning to regular season play, but the preseason is in full swing. So is MLS Post-Mortem, and this week we will examine the Chicago Fire's road to relevance and why they shouldn't sell Harry Shipp.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

MLS is a league filled with parity. Everyone remotely interested in the league knows this, but every year it becomes more obvious even for the biggest fans. Any team can win in any given year thanks to some sneaky, under-the-radar offseason moves.

Were there any lower-tier clubs that improved significantly enough to contend for a championship? We won't know for months, but we can always speculate: the Chicago Fire may be that team.

Chicago, already built on young talent, had arguably the best offseason in MLS. They pulled off the sneakiest SuperDraft of anyone, acquired league veterans like Nick LaBrocca and Michael Harrington, and added two center-backs in their prime. With players like Harry Shipp, Matt Polster, Gilberto and David Accam still on the roster, the Fire did what they needed to do to make this team a definite playoff contender.

But now, recent reports suggest that Shipp has been traded to the Montreal Impact for cash. This would shake up the Fire roster completely, and force them to make another move for an attacker. They should not make this transaction, because if they don't, playoffs could be on the horizon.

They already have one of the better goalkeepers in the league among their talented corps, the USMNT's Sean Johnson, and added defensive depth in Brazil U-20 right-back Rodrigo Ramos. Here's what a first-team lineup could look like right now with Shipp:

There are still adjustments to be made–they need a winger and a right-back–but that can be done using all the general allocation money they received in a deal with NYCFC for number-one overall draft pick Jack Harrison, and a trade with FC Dallas for the first pick in the 2016 re-entry draft.

Mikey Stephens, behind Razvan Cocis in the midfield, could get first-team action more often this season after starting 16 matches last year. He would theoretically sit behind Shipp in a 4-2-3-1 with Polster, who should be playing defensive midfield rather than right-back.

Shipp should be played as a do-it-all number-ten instead of as a winger or forward like he was last year. His xA (expected assists, for those who don't know) told us as much. According to American Soccer Analysis, here is where Shipp ranked in the statistic:

Rank

Player

xA

12

Darlington Nagbe (PT)

5.33

13

Sebastien Le Toux (PHI)

5.28

14

Ethan Finlay (CREW)

5.22

15

Harry Shipp (CHI)

5.18

16

Kaká (OCSC)

5.13

17

David Villa (NYCFC)

5.06

18

Michael Bradley (TFC)

5.00

He placed better than Kaká, Michael Bradley and David Villa. He was also better than Clint Dempsey, Lee Nguyen and Fabian Castillo, impressive considering all six of those players have been MLS All-Stars.

The Illinois native looks good enough to be one of the best attacking players in the league down the road, if, of course, he is played at the correct position. He is exceptionally mature on the ball and off it, and can still put goals on the board despite his focus on passing. It's hard to doubt his high potential.

His distribution is his best asset, but there are multiple other parts of his game that impress as well. Shipp, even when played as an outside midfielder, was adept at finding little pockets of space to work from in the midfield, and showed great technique on the ball. Off the ball is where he excels the most, though.

Shipp stays high up the field more often than not, but occasionally, when the Fire had numbers in the attacking zone after at least some build-up play, he will drop back a bit and find a hole in central midfield from which to work. This helps him both acquire space to find a channel runner like Accam or Gilberto and provide an outlet for teammates.

Observing places like these on the field requires great vision, and that's what Shipp has. An example of this could be taken from a September 19th game against Orlando City SC:

As Daneil Cyrus moves the ball up the field, Shipp takes a couple steps back into space. There is a noticeable gap between the Orlando City midfield and defense, and he is in the perfect position to take advantage of it, whether that is with a blazing long shot or a crafty through ball.

Cyrus wouldn't even get it to him and the play would go on without Shipp getting a touch (Kennedy Igboananike would blast a shot over the bar), but it was indicative of his ability to find those pockets of space in the center.

His technical ability is above average as well. He can get out of tight spaces using creative dribbling and exquisite passing, almost similar to the former Balloon D'Or winner Kaká. It may be a little premature to speak so highly of the Homegrown player, but he deserves the praise. The Impact would be getting a player with a very bright future.

Shipp and other attackers wouldn't be the only reason for Chicago's success. The backline looks solid as well, with Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira entering from Europe to start in central defense and Brandon Vincent getting drafted fourth overall at left-back. Right-back should still be improved, but it is a good sign for the Fire to see three solid starters.

Vincent seems to be the most talented of the bunch, judging from his favorable performance with the United States national team. But Meira, picked up on a free transfer from Portugal, looks good as well. He helped his club, Belenenses, gain promotion to the Primeira Liga, and has started 45 games over the past two years. The Portugal native shows superb instincts and intelligence off the ball, which could be good for a young Fire team.

With a keeper like Johnson behind him, Meira could shine along with Kappelhof, who enters from the Dutch Eredivisie. If they don't, the Fire could always plug in rookie center-back Jonathan Campbell, who they drafted in the SuperDraft first round.

If, and that's a huge if right now, Shipp were to remain in Chicago, they would be a viable playoff contender. But if he leaves, there's another hole to fill, and it is unlikely they will acquire somebody with the ability and potential of Shipp. It is possible they have a player in mind who they would sign with the money they'd receive from Montreal, but for right now, the Fire should stick with Shipp.

MLS stock watch: Mid preseason edition

New England Revolution- Jay Heaps and company look to have solved their central midfield problem. After DP signing Xavier Kouassi went down with an ACL injury, the Revs acquired Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Gershon Koffie. He will take over the same spot Jermaine Jones did–as a box-to-box runner who can play on offense and defense. Only Koffie is a decade younger and isn't suspended six games to start the season. Verdict: Rising

Montreal Impact- Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti needed better service from the midfield. They will have it now that Shipp is officially a member of the Impact. If they play him in the correct position, this will be a very successful deal for the Impact. As for the Fire, well, scroll up. MLS teams should be frightened at the sight of Drogba and Shipp combining. Verdict: Scary

New York Red Bulls- After seeing star center-back Matt Miazga depart for the Premier League this offseason, the Red Bulls appear to have solved the problem. They signed Ghanaian defender Gideon Baah from Finnish club HJK Helsinki, with help from current NYRB and Ghana winger Lloyd Sam. Baah will partner with Ronald Zubar in central defense. Verdict: Satisfied

MLS uniforms- The uniform unveilings are coming fast and furious. The LA GalaxyRed BullsWhitecapsColumbus Crew and basically the entire league have brought out new looks, some good, some bad. See them all in one place here. Verdict: A lot