A View from Afar / Commentary

The importance of going local

Photo: Earl Gardner

The Chicago Fire embarked on a public relations mess recently that could prove a cautionary tale for clubs around the league.

As part of a generally impressive off-season makeover, the club traded hometown boy Harry Shipp to Montreal this week for allocation money. Fans, however, were not impressed, to put it mildly. Neither was Shipp, a fan favorite who grew up a Chicago fire fan and wrote an earnest public letter to fans conveying his shock and sadness at leaving his hometown club, saying things like, “Heck my bedroom at my parents’ house is still covered wall to wall in signed Fire jerseys and memorabilia from when I was younger.”

Shipp wasn’t just another homegrown player buried on the bench. He was one of the league’s top rookies in 2014 and impressed many with his vision and attacking play from a central attacking midfield role that year. But once he was pushed out wide to the left last season, his play dropped off, as tends to happen with players deployed out of position. This season, he looked poised for a return to the center, and for a club that has struggled so royally in recent years with such significant local public relations problems, notably in their tax dealings with the city of Bridgeview, Ill., the Fire need any connection to their fans they can get.

New general manager Nelson Rodriguez and new coach Veljko Paunovic clearly felt otherwise, and instead, Shipp will ply his trade in Montreal this season. By trading Shipp for allocation money, Chicago was likely seeking additional funds to acquire a central creative player in Europe they have already identified, perhaps Dutch attacker Michael de Leeuw, whose Discovery Rights are reportedly held by Philadelphia Union.

Defenders of the trade will say that Chicago could bring in a better replacement. If it makes the club better, who is to argue?

Therein lies the rub, as it always does.

What if Chicago doesn’t find a better replacement? What if Shipp stars for Montreal?

Then they have traded away a promising player on the field who has even larger potential off the field because of his local connections, a player who can become the face of a franchise very much in need of one. In the immediate short term, that is hurting the club, as fans blistered the team over the deal.

We’ll see what happens down the line, once they bring in a replacement. Obviously it could work out fine on the field for Chicago, and up till this trade, Rodriguez and Paunovic have been very impressive.

But if Shipp goes on to become a star elsewhere, Fire fans won’t forget it.

MLS clubs can learn from this cautionary tale

Clubs such as Philadelphia should view this as a cautionary tale.

Philadelphia’s trade of Zach Pfeffer this year created surprisingly little outcry, perhaps in part because it brought something so obviously tangible in allowing the team to move up in the draft to select center back Josh Yaro, another promising player who fills a position of need. It also likely lacked controversy because Pfeffer, at age 21, has yet to play to the level that Shipp has.

Each MLS club may face a time when that hometown player may be poised for a breakthrough. Do you trade him to get a more proven player and a more definitive opportunity to improve in the short term?

The answer in most cases should be no. You give the local boy the opportunity to come good.

MLS talks a lot about youth development and establishing local connections like those you see with European clubs, but it has yet to broadly set about progressing these players to the next level. Yes, there are certainly isolated cases, and the success that FC Dallas is seeing with its youth program under Oscar Pareja should be a template for other clubs to emulate. But on a broader level, it isn’t happening often.

MLS teams need their versions of Steven Gerrard with Liverpool or Paolo Maldini with Milan. Such players are certainly rare, but if MLS can find the right local player to plug in as the solid, dependable, starting left back or defensive midfielder or whatever, that works too.

It’s one reason why, even though many viewed it as a bit of a draft reach for a player at a position not of need, the Union’s acquisition of Keegan Rosenberry remains very defensible. Here is a local player, tied to the club as a youth player, who wanted to play specifically for the Union.

In the big picture, for a young league and often younger teams still seeking to cement their place in the professional sporting landscape, that matters a great deal.

57 Comments

  1. For better or worse, Zach hasn’t even been close to the player Shipp is or could be. I’m sorry to say it, because he seems like a great guy, but that’s a fact.

    That’s why no Philly outcry.

  2. ^ yeah what he said
    plus, Andrew Wenger was pushed as the local lad returning from the great white north and we all saw how well that worked out

  3. We all agree that a youth system is important. You could argue that it is vital and critical to a team adhering to the Moneyball philosophy.
    .
    But you can’t let loyalty cloud judgement. We wanted Zach to be a local hero, but the harsh reality is that he may never reach the quality we had hoped he would. None of our Homegrowns seem to have that ceiling.
    .
    Keep looking locally. But there is no guarantee that there are any future stars in our backyard. We shouldn’t elevate their reputations based on location and hope.

  4. I feel there is inherit danger in promoting a local lad, just for the sake of being local. There are plenty of teams in the EPL (I use EPL as it’s the league I’m most familiar with besides MLS) that have had to move on from homegrown players. Players like Gerard and Kane seem to be the anomaly. Obviously there’s also the financial part of it, where teams like South Hampton sell players on to keep financial viability or are unable to keep players due to rising values. South Hampton also brings to the table a club’s ability to produce such players. Some clubs can. Others, like Chelsea seem unable. Chelsea has somewhere around 30 players out on loan? Is this from an inability to grow them or the lack of willingness to let them learn while playing in the first team? The differences may even lie in the coach and his ability to get the most from younger players. Poch at Spurs seems the anomaly rather than the norm.
    .
    Keeping a homegrown player just because they are homegrown is an easy way to retard the progress of a club. Putting a young player out there who isn’t ready is also a way to stagnate that player’s career and even hamper the final product they become. The Union have shown an inability, so far, to develop the homegrowns. Was it the lack of a stepping point they control from academy to Pro level, or lack of a quality coach to develop them? These are questions that may soon be answered with the new structure and addition of Stewart. Only time will tell.

    • +1 (See John McCarthy)
      .
      In the configuration PRIOR to this year, I don’t think the “deveopment” system was anything of the like. More of a “recognition/protection” system and Sak couldn’t even run THAT correctly.
      .
      I see a lot of folks showing symptoms of “beaten wife syndrome” around here. Seems those posters are SO skeptical about the unknowns that they’d MUCH rather stick with the same guys that missed the playoffs again and again.
      .
      I’ll side with EP on Pheffer, he’s still got time to develop (If the possibility is there at all)
      .
      Maybe guys like Pheffer, Okugo (sorry EP), Maidana, and Wenger aren’t here anymore because it was recognized they REALLY couldn’t be counted as solid foundation blocks to build on.
      .
      Being the fastest horse in a race of glue factory nags does NOT make that horse a “thoroughbread”.

  5. for sure the marketing aspects of developing and fielding even one local player merit more thought than Fire gave to Shipp. the paucity of locally developed players in all leagues seems to highlight the difficulty in identifying good players at a young age, or even at a developed age. in an era where news/video travels too fast, I am not sure MLS owners have the stones to keep their own John Stones – and he started at Barnsley, not Everton. Barnsley must have been disappointed when Everton turned down £30M – they are due 15%. This digression highlights the conflict between the marketing and accounting departments.

  6. Well to me part of the problem is college.
    .
    The advent of a USL system which allows kids to play and train at 18 in a professional manner matters.
    .
    The idea of a kid training professionally than going off to college to play as a student has to die a thousand deaths if we are to truly optimize youth and player development… a kid needs to believe in his core at 14 or 15 that his express purpose…everything he is playing for is about becoming a professional player..go to high school graduate and turn pro… play in BSFC get called up… to first team…
    .
    or fulfill the needs of another club. or go to europe. be sold for cash.
    .
    Zac Pfeffer is a troubling case because the club he came up with had no idea what it was doing. He had nowhere to play as an 18 year old getting high quality minutes… essentially Zac Pfeffer’s development stalled out by choosing to turn pro and that is an egregious indictment on both the club locally and the league in general.
    .
    This I believe is beginning to change. Hope so.
    .
    While is is a minor bummer Harry Shipp is no longer with the Chicago Fire, for whatever reason, there are many many clubs all around that purposely develop players to loan them out or sell them or have leadership turnover which changes the course of the clubs trajectory…I have ZERO problem with this… I don’t feel bad in the least that Harry Shipp was moved… this is supposed to be professional football… now does he wind up in football limbo is the question.
    .
    will the Gatekeepers of the US System allow his quality to shine in a place that he can continue to develop… Harry Shipp is by no means a finished product…course at 24 he should be a finished product for the most part but that is another debate for another day…

    • So I want to pose a few questions in reference to college.
      .
      1) What are the kids looking for when they move into the college ranks? Is it the college experience? Is it a degree? In the Union’s case, was it playing time? I.E. was playing time at HCI in question and they’d rather have more of a given in college? Or was it the lack of control by the Union in their relationship with HCI?
      .
      2) If a greater part of the answer from above was a degree, would not a college specifically designed to work with soccer players to earn degrees behoove the MLS? Something akin to Phoenix University where education can be found online. Yes most colleges offer online programs now, but I assume they would be less likely to be flexible for a player if said player wasn’t actually playing for their team. Then there is also the question of quality. A degree from Stanford carries more weight than one from Phoenix.

      • Good questions.
        .
        I’ve been arguing your second point for awhile… choosing professional career does not mean a kids education has to stop…
        .
        a hundred yes’ to this point by you… no longer can kids with professional aspirations desire playing in the ACC on a full or partial boat.
        .
        But this is not the whole story either… the context of our current set up is much murkier… and as much as people argue me and BEG the topic to stop coming up.. promotion and relegation and open pyramid that rewards monetarily the development of assets has a lot to do with this. If the system was an open one…
        .
        College soccer would rightly fall into the background as a club activity for those who enjoy playing but were not good enough nor cared to train to be good enough to be professional. Nothing wrong with college soccer it just cannot be the road, AT ALL- to the professional level.
        .
        Zac Pfeffer chose professional soccer over College soccer and is now likely boned for his choice and that has to change… His is a cautionary tale..as I’ve written before…don’t be the first homegrown player signed by a club and choose to bypass the entrenched college route, in its infancy with no legitimate plan for your development and a front office caked in shit.

      • Keep in mind that as soon as you sign your contract, you are NCAA-ineligible. Which means you are no longer able to receive a full scholarship to play soccer in college.
        .
        If these guys want to continue their education, they suddenly no longer have the option of getting free education at Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Stanford, Wake Forest, etc.
        .
        I understand your desire to get these kids moving forward for the betterment of US Soccer, but if I’m 18 and I have a choice, I’m taking my degree from world-renowned university – on their dime – and taking my shot at the pro game 3 or 4 years later.
        .
        And I hate to break the bad news to you, but I am likely in the very large majority in this country.

      • .
        You are in the majority… and you are correct many would chose the education on anthers dime…and with all deeply due respect to your POV, which I admire greatly… this is a worldview of how to push the game forward that has to change.
        .
        The NCAA is college soccer’s daddy not the USDA and MLS.

      • What would solve this riddle better would be a complete and total overhaul/reform of the NCAA’s policies to allow students to become members of a professional organization, (play and train with the pros in the offseason), while playing for the school and earning a degree.
        .
        Just a thought.
        .
        But with the status quo, if my son has the choice between going pro or getting a degree, I would STRONGLY urge the degree. Too many kids that choose the pro path don’t make it. You have a greater chance of success in life with a degree than you do with cool stories from your “almost-successful” career.

      • I understand your position and this is the part where we always just agree to disagree.
        .
        Enjoy the debate.

      • My initial idea was to respond with, “Here we go again…” :p
        .
        Gotta love free speech!
        .
        Differences expressed civilly. Hey, Trump and Cruz, are you paying attention? It is possible…

      • about 200 Div1 schools give 10 full scholarships per year (they can be partialed up), so 2,000 full rides or 4,000 half rides, out of 4,000-5,000 players (and some Div1 schools, like mine, don’t give any – thanks, Mom and Dad). it’s a significant share, yet I would have done what Zac did in a heartbeat. My Dad would have stopped speaking to me, and I would still have gone to college somehow/sometime, but it would have been too attractive for where my head was to pass up.

      • Maybe another way is to use the NCAA to your benefit.
        .
        If you are offered a scholarship at top-level school, take it and go your freshman year before going pro. The school can’t rescind your academic status if you have already begun and are in good academic standing. (I’m sure they COULD, but they won’t.)
        .
        Amobi finished his UCLA degree while playing in Philly.
        .
        Get a degree from a world-class institute. Play pro. Get both.
        .
        This is the winning game plan, if you can make it work.

      • this blended approach is also sensible – sort of the holding seabiscuit up until the 1st turn (rather than the last) approach. having met many from different academic backgrounds and schedules, the “rush” to finish education while age 18 to 25 seems a bit misplaced.

      • You answered your own question. Rest is just convo chiming not at you –
        Would you forgo a quality education for a subpar one? Univ of Phoenix is a fraudulent diploma mill. See where that degree will get you.

        Would I sign a HG for $75k to play in Bethlehem or play for free at USC? Is this a real question kids would ponder? The MLS avg rookie can expect a 2 1/2 year career. And then what, go back and pay $40k a year for college? Does the NCAA retard player development? Maybe. Probably. Do they get a diploma where they can start a career? About 85% do. I think the NCAA has real issues (former D1 student athlete), but if I was a HS senior facing this choice I’d go college all day everyday.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        These are the things I find troubling… okay so it’s not University of Phoenix. Good grief. Doesn’t mean the argument is unsound sir.
        .
        This is the part where two roads diverge in a wood… One road says status quo go get your handsome college education so you have a safer landing. One road says you risk everything for the dream.
        .
        Take road one no problem…help your kid take road one… No problem.
        .
        In 5 or 10 years college will be an all but dead end to the professional game so you better have that in mind if your little one is a good footballer and says, dad I want to be a professional… Have him take up band or basketball or something else.

      • You bring up a good question: Why can it work for basketball, football, baseball, etc., but not soccer? Is there some intrinsic aspect of the game that makes the college atmosphere degrade a player’s skills?
        .
        Or is it just that the coaching is sub-par? And if that is the issue, maybe that is where changes need to be addressed.
        .
        Or maybe we just don’t produce enough world-class athletes that chooses soccer over the more lucrative sports. (Most likely of all the answers.)

      • Excellent questions.
        .
        For starters the 18-22 year old futballer in other parts of the world are already playing against top level players so it is not just the coaching… what percentage of college players go pro? less than 1% whereas the 18 year old in another part of the world is already playing everyday against players of like ability and better who are not pursuing as a primary road their college degree.
        .
        The level of play is infinitely better in arguably the second most important milestone in a player’s career- 18-22. in America it is virtually a dead space of activity while it should be a fertile fertile ground..
        .
        This is not the case in every other college sport where the continent has the Gold Standard pretty well already cornered IE NBA, MLS, NFL.
        .
        Football in an outlier in every aspect and cannot be put into the US happy to wrap package… yet we continue to bend the game’s will to ours as though we are arrogant and superior. It is utterly laughable.

      • Or there simply isn’t enough room in the landscape for another major sport.
        .
        No major sport has come to the forefront in America, as far as national attention and acceptance across all demographic lines since the 1960’s (the rise of both football and basketball).
        .
        Hockey hasn’t moved past its niche. And it is still played mostly by foreigners.
        .
        Lacrosse tried multiple times and failed.
        .
        NASCAR is the very definition of a “Regional Sport,” no matter how much Brian France tries to change that.
        .
        Golf has been, is, and always will be the domain of the upper-middle class.
        .
        Maybe soccer is simply a niche sport in the country, and is destined to remain there.

      • This is what was so wrong with your statement:”kid needs to believe in his core at 14 or 15 that his express purpose…everything he is playing for is about becoming a professional player…..
        or fulfill the needs of another club. or go to europe. be sold for cash.” You really believe this crap? I love soccer, but I’d never want my kid to just define himself in such narrow terms.

      • what makes soccer any different than a kid who wants to be an NBA player, NHL player or baseball pitcher… do you think a kid magically wakes up one morning at 17 and says, ‘oh hey I’m pretty good at this let’s see if …”
        .
        Come on… your damn right I believe this stuff.
        .

      • Hate the way this site indents comments into one long line. Ugh.

        EP- probably the real issue with NCAA soccer vs “the world” is the limits on training hours collegiately instead of an academy setting and train all day.

        Hockey is probably a decent Norte Americano analogy, kids can go college or juniors. One day though, those roads converge at the end of a career. Do some go back? Yes. Lalas returned to Rutgers, God bless him. Outside of the game or broadcasting the game, without a degree, that leaves these guys with what? Sales? Own a bar? Both rely on some levels of name brand recognition. I’d want my kid to have options, American Messi be damned.

      • We hate it too. The alternative though is to set it up so that, a little earlier in the comments line, it becomes clear who’s replying to who. But we can change it to go back to that latter way, if that’s a preference of readers. Let us know. 🙂

      • .
        This is not about American Messi.
        .
        Its about World Class.
        .
        They are two different things.
        .
        .
        NO different than the other professional sports of which we produce THE world class players … James Hardin, Stephan Curry, Madison Baumgardner, Russell Wilson et al.
        .
        Not a one of those players are ever going to be considered the greatest of all time… they are World Class.
        .
        This kid glove soccer naivety we have is frightening to me.

      • Just for the record scottymac, I don’t think the Unv. of Phoenix is the answer. I just used it to convey an idea. The whole point of the questions was to spur conversation in relation to el P’s comment. I’d say it did…
        .
        With most subjects we discuss here, I try and take an objective observer’s view. Mostly because I realize I don’t have the experience/knowledge to take a definitive stance. I.E. Curtain last year. A lot here wanted to crucify him. I usually took an observational view, that tried to take into account as many things as possible. As a result I got labeled a Curtain supporter, when really I was just being an observer. Players in matches are usually different because I can see with my own eyes and judge whether or not someone is playing well. I am, and always will be, filled with more questions, than answers.

      • No sweat and I qualified wasn’t calling you out per se.

        DW – love the site, just not the comments format.

        I also, don’t want to crucify Curtin, but I don’t believe he’s qualified to be the Union’s manager. Would have preferred to not have to watch his learning curve.

  7. interesting review of EPL player development – seems to argue for the BSFC model. if only we could rid our league of the single entity.
    .
    http://thesefootballtimes.co/2016/02/03/the-imperfect-system-are-loan-deals-the-future-of-english-player-development/

    • I really liked this article by the way. Thanks for sharing and it highlights a really interesting point that England is fighting a similar battle with their development of players in that key 18-23 years old range that we’re facing in America.

  8. Zach never had shot with how this team was run during his time here. I believe we would be saying the same thing if it Harry and Zach were switched.

    • OK, I take exception with this oft stated opinion. Zach DID have a good, long, shot here EVERY DAY in practice, scrimages, etc.
      .
      We, the fans, see and understand a TINY fraction of what the coaches see on a daily basis on the practice field, drills, in and out of the locker room.
      .
      Game Day is just top of the mountain (and a small fraction of the team’s overall activity), you’ve got to earn your way to the top.

  9. Keeping local players may also beenfit the club disproportionately if you develop a really good one. Look at Matt Besler; a couple of years ago he could well have signed with a Euroopean club, but instead he chose to stay in his hometown. If that has value to the player, its advantageous to the club.

  10. Yikes, I never realized what a boondoggle Toyota Park has turned out to be. We’re used to seeing the publicly-financed stadium scam play out on the bigger stages of MLB and the NFL, but this is another cautionary tale to throw in the pile. I sure hope nothing like this is happening (or is going to happen) to Chester, I don’t think it could handle $3-4M (!!) annual losses from PPL (I’m just not going to get used to Talen)..

    • Yes, it was a terrible decision by Bridgeview to agree to build the stadium there.

      • In fairness, we have the benefit of hindsight. President Bush’s SOTU speech praised the high point of home ownership on his watch. Oops! Same with Chester – the total collapse of the financial markets (for which none of the players has paid) makes the standard complaint about government investment in pro stadiums more appealing today. But it’s not a zero-xum game. Chester’s public schools would not have received the same dollars dedicated to the Union. Probably the same for Bridgeview.

  11. One thing is for sure, a lot of Fire fans are not happy. All the Fire sites I’ve read have been full of angry comments from people who sound like they’ve had it with the club. Now if the Fire brings in a midfielder and start winning games, all will likely be forgiven/forgotten. The risk, however, is that if the team doesn’t get off to a good start, they’re going to really lose the fan base.

    • This is a general response to your comment not directed specifically to you sir…
      .
      but Chicago will never really be punished… cause lord knows the value of the franchise is WAY more than when originally purchased so long as that is the case than big daddy MLS is happy… so we will just sit and watch them implode maybe- be the bottom feeders in a league that doesn’t punish them for their utter ineptitude or inability to get it right, I mean nothing says quality like a league of 24 or 26 teams with 1/3 of them really being total junk… meanwhile… Minnesota FC has to give up its name because there can only be one or two United united…. Does anybody else find it interesting at all how many more fans began showing up at Orlando FC home games once they reached the highest level… and they didn’t even earn the right to be there… it was given… I bet if they earned the right those fans would be die-hards forever… but if they are lackadaisical those number of fans will just wither away? Interesting to think about don’t you think.
      .
      Hmmm. Seems off. Anyway… lunchtime.

      • Soccer is still in its infancy here in some ways. Catering to people who want to see hometown heroes — a phenomenon that is pretty much dead in other major US sports — is maybe a little more important. And the same consideration applies to pro/rel. Maybe it would work here. And maybe — in a country in which people are more interested in winning and being the best — it would be impossible to draw fans to what they consider a B league. I’m with you on the United thing in Minnesota. Why can’t they keep their name? Who cares? — Perhaps we could set our sights on getting the league away from the single entity model and then tackle the other issues.

      • You may have a point, but Florida is a quagmire for sports franchises. Too many transplants from all over the nation and world. A good proportion are retirees with little reason to invest time and energy to teams they have no relation with. Let alone the “snowbirds” that return north when the weather warms. Then there is the Latino communities where you would imagine a good majority of supporters should come from. But I imagine a majority of those are probably already invested in other leagues due to a father’s, grandfather’s, etc. loyalty. It would seem the only draw would be a strong team that shows a willingness to spend and compete at a high level. None the less, I hope the do create a following and draw younger fans in growing the game inch by inch, generation by generation.

    • Or if the Sting starts playing downtown and sells ownership shares in the team. A lot of Fire fans in Chicago are excited about anything that Peter Wilt is involved with.

      That’s probably a reason why the Union agreed to get rid of Sak and clean house as the NASL was/is eyeing up this market for expansion.

  12. A youth development program that simply takes what Continental FC, Lower Merion or Penn Fusion spoon feeds them is hardly worth its salt. Those clubs represent a minuscule sampling of the talented youths in the area and the Union needs to cast their net wider.

    • +1.
      .
      This is a where US Soccer needs fundamental changes – scouting and talent recognition. We have millions upon millions of kids playing every year. You’re telling me we can’t find a couple of superstars?
      (I went a little more national than you did, but your comment is a starting point for a MUCH larger discussion.)

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Triumphant post.

  13. it could be that the importance of being local has been replaced by the importance of being a rookie who makes it big – and stays a one club man. guys like that who ride out even a modestly successful career never have to buy a drink again …

  14. Since 2005, the winners of the Champion’s League have averaged 7.2 homegrown players.

    • yes, however, UEFA’s rules are a bit … flexible, and state:

      • From 2008/09, clubs in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League required a minimum of eight homegrown players in a squad limited to 25. These rules are also in force in several national leagues across Europe.

      • UEFA introduced the rule in three phases:
      Season 2006/07: minimum of four homegrown players in 25-man squad
      Season 2007/08: minimum of six homegrown players in 25-man squad
      Season 2008/09: minimum of eight homegrown players in 25-man squad

      • Clubs have no obligation to put a certain number of homegrown players on the field of play, or on the matchsheet. They are entirely free in their team and matchday squad selection.

      • UEFA defines locally-trained or ‘homegrown’ players as those who, regardless of their nationality, have been trained by their club or by another club in the same national association for at least three years between the age of 15 and 21. Up to half of the locally-trained players must be from the club itself, with the others being either from the club itself or from other clubs in the same association.

  15. Dutch Attacker Michael de Leeuw – any chance this is the future DP signing that they have been hinting about? Think he is more of a #10 than striker and we seem to already have a couple of #10s. Maybe not of his quality though?

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