It is a lesson Major League Soccer fans should have already known, but for supporters of the Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders, the weekend provided cold reminders that professional soccer is a business above all else.
Chicago's stunning decision to trade homegrown player and fan favorite Harrison Shipp to the Montreal Impact was one of the more surprising moves made by an MLS team in some time. It was the kind of move few, if any, Fire fans could have seen coming. The club was in the midst of a roster makeover, but it has always been believed Shipp would be one of the few holdovers in Veljko Paunovic's reclamation project.
Obafemi Martin's reported transfer to Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua wasn't quite as shocking as the Shipp trade, but it still had to register surprise to a fan base desperately hoping this is the year Seattle's hunt for an MLS Cup title bears fruit. That surely made the prospects of the Sounders losing on of their best players a nightmare scenario, even with Seattle being stacked at the forward position.
So why did the Shipp deal happen, and why is the Martins transfer likely to happen? In both cases, teams are making calculated moves devoid of emotion, even if such approaches might be destined to be unpopular moves.
The Shipp trade is already among the most unpopular trades in recent MLS history. The Fire have been the worst team in MLS over the past two seasons, and one of the few bright spots through that awful stretch has been Shipp. His technical skill and penchant for creating goals made him easy to root for and the Fire had no problem playing up the hometown kid angle.
That made Saturday's news of a trade to Montreal a shock, and suddenly the good that new head coach Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez had been enjoying disappeared. Now, instead of the new leadership being given the benefit of the doubt, the sense among Fire fans — and the rest of MLS — is that the team is still a mess and 2016 just might wind up being worse than the previous two terrible seasons.
Adding fuel to that sentiment was an emotional Twitter message from Shipp that laid out just how unexpected the move was, and how devastated he was by the trade.
Dear, Chicago. Took some time to compose myself and write down my thoughts in the attached notes! pic.twitter.com/kH0gG67Bhm
— Harry Shipp (@championShipp11) February 13, 2016
The Fire's motivation for the trade is not yet fully known, with the club's announcement of the trade failing to offer much detail. From a practical standpoint, the decision likely boiled down to Paunovic deciding he could find better options for a playmaker to build his team around than Shipp. As promising as he has been at times, Shipp has been throughout his two years in the league. That isn't to say he isn't talented, but the MLS media and marketing machine has a penchant for overhyping homegrown players, which often serves only to create unrealistic expectations. Shipp isn't considered one of the league's best playmakers, and questions about his work rate have circulated since he arrived in MLS (and is seen as the key reason he hasn't drawn a U.S. national team look). Shipp could still improve— he's 24— but it isn't a stretch to think someone with the Paunovic's international ties believes he can find a better playmaker on the international market.
The Shipp trade landed the Fire both general allocaition money and targeted allocation money, both of which should help reshape their roster and pave the way for Paunovic to bring in a player he sees as a clear up grade to Shipp. The only problem is that until that player actually signs, and actually starts playing games, Fire fans will be left stewing at the reality their team traded away a fan favorite for the MLS equivalent of Monopoly money.
Perhaps Paunovic and Gonzalez underestimated the emotional component of trading Shipp, but then again maybe they decided it was worth the gamble of initial negative backlash if it meant paving the way for making the team better in the long run. Either way, trading Shipp was a major gamble by the team's new leadership and it will take some time before we find out of it was worth it.
Seattle's looming sale of Martins carries far less emotional baggage than the Shipp deal, and is drawing less of a reaction, in part because it's an understandable move. The Chinese league is spending like crazy, and Martins could be looking at a sizable pay increase if the move goes through. The transfer doesn't sound like it's one Seattle is crazy about doing, but the Sounders have always been a pragmatic club that finds a way to make the best possible deal.
"Oba's not here with us in this phase of camp," Sounders general manger Garth Lagerwey told reporters on Sunday. "We've had an approach from a Chinese club for his services, and it could take a while to have that resolved. Hopefully we'll know more by the end of the week."
The Sounders sound ready to let Martins go, and that decision is made easier by the presence of Clint Dempsey, Nelson Haedo Valdez and Jordan Morris. Losing Martins will still hurt, but the Sounders have never been shy about hitting the international market, or spending money, so it isn't likely to be long before the Sounders fill Martins' designated player role once he leaves.
The reality is it is a bit of a surprise it took this long for Martins to leave. When Martins arrived in Seattle three seasons ago, he had played for six clubs in seven seasons. He thrived with the Sounders, and every winter his name was linked with potential moves. He stuck around for three years, which is probably longer than most would have expected.
Martins had another excellent season in 2015, but he also missed 13 matches last season and disappointed in the payoffs. He has given the Sounders some good seasons, but if Seattle can secure a sizable transfer for his services, it may be a good time to part ways.
Much like the Shipp trade, any Martins moves will ultimately be judged by what the Sounders do to replace him. The big difference is the Sounders have banked a bunch of good will with the recent signing of Morris, who can now move a step closer to becoming a regular starter as a rookie if Martins leave.
The Fire don't have that luxury. Where Seattle is a title contender even without Martins, the Fire are very incomplete team that just traded away its most popular player. Any patience the Fire's fan base was going to have with the club's new leadership has evaporated. Now it is up to Fire leadership to prove that the cold and calcuated decision to trade away a fan favorite was, from a busines standpoint, the right thing to do.
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