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Wheeler's Insider | Shaffelburg in the Spotlight

Who is Jacob Shaffelburg? Where did he come from? And what took so long to get him in the first-team? 

These are all questions asked after a Man of the Match performance in a 3-2 win over Atlanta Wednesday night. The newcomer impressed from the get-go in his first MLS start and BMO Field debut; electric on the night, showing pace, creativity and providing very good service in attack. Shaffelburg was relentless over 90 minutes of pulsating, fast-paced action, recording his first MLS assist in the process.

Wednesday night was a dream come true for the Port Williams, Nova Scotia native. Shaffelburg defied the odds even making it to this point. It’s a success story seldom told in Canadian soccer, among the many overlooked and/or unnoticed talents across the country. Jacob’s story is one of perseverance, taking the road less traveled and taking advantage of opportunity when it presents itself. And if his first week as a Toronto FC first-team player is any indication, the long and winding road may take him places beyond what he ever dreamt possible.

Port Williams is a town of 1,500 people in the Annapolis Valley, about an hour outside of Halifax. It’s a town like so many others in Canada; where kids play hockey first, with soccer serving as a summer or a part time sport for many. Opportunity is few and far between in rural areas as such. Nova Scotia doesn’t have a decorated record of development professional talent. Former national team member Ante Jazic came from Bedford, NS, but that’s about it. 

Jacob grew up in a soccer loving and playing family. The sport became his passion. Desire to improve, advance and achieve helped pave his way onto the Nova Scotia provincial team. Shaffelburg’s first real chance to get noticed outside of the province came as evaluators from Canada Soccer came to scout his u15 provincial team. “I played terrible,” said Jacob, explaining how three or four other players from Nova Scotia got invites into the National Program. But not Shaffelburg. 

Some would have shifted gears, or changed focused, or settled for less. Shaffelburg elected to go down a different path. He knew he had to leave home to give himself a chance.  Family ties provided that chance to get out and get noticed. Jacob’s brother Zach, eight years older was a soccer player and attended Berkshire School; a prep school in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Jacob applied, knowing It wasn’t easy to be accepted; a school high on academic achievement. Jacob was wait-listed for a period of time, before eventually being accepted and repeating his grade 9 year as part of the terms.

The quality of football and competition was better south of the border. And Berkshire School had become a buzz boarding school for emerging talent. Former first overall MLS SuperDraft pic and New York City midfielder Jack Harrison attended Berkshire. Harrison left Manchester United’s Academy at 14 to cross the Atlantic to take the unconventional route to develop. Usually top players go the other way, let alone to an American Boarding School to find opportunity. Harrison won the Gatorade Player of the Year at Berkshire in 2015, bringing all kinds of attention to the soccer program. Harrison is a Manchester City player today, who spent last season on-loan at Leeds United. Success stories like Harrison’s draws attention, with clubs trying to mine the next diamond in the rough.

Queue Toronto FC. Assistant General Manager Corey Wray was notified about a young, Canadian player dominating at Berkshire. The school’s reputation built on the back of Harrison, and with Shaffelburg coming from the Maritimes, where no Canadian MLS team owns discovery rights based on territory, it was worth further investigation. Wray was immediately impressed by YouTube video and highlights of the player. Shaffelburg’s pace and ability to get in behind the backline had him playing on another level.

Toronto FC’s scouts agreed it was worth a first-hand look at the player. Jacob first came to Toronto FC for a week and lived up to his billing. It posted one of the fastest 30m sprint times the scouts had ever seen. All impressions were favourable in talent and persona. Shaffelburg started coming to the Toronto FC Academy in his spare time, ahead of joining up with Danny Dichio’s TFC III team in League One Ontario play in the summer of 2017. He was billeted for the summer as he played, before returning back to school in the fall, returning as an even better player, winning the Gatorade Player of the Year in Massachusetts that ensuing season. In 2017 Greg Vanney also had his first look at Shaffelburg. 

Vanney recalls the moment Jacob caught his eye. Shaffelburg was among a group of young players making up the numbers in a scout team for a training session, basically mimicking the formation approach of the upcoming opponent in a training session. Chris Mavinga, a player with incredible pace himself, was jogging back comfortably to a ball that was played in behind him. Unaware and unassuming, a 17 year old kid takes off blows past him. Vanney says at that moment, “the entire coaching staff looked at one another, eyes wide open, asking ‘Who is this kid?’ It was amazing. It took Chris and us by complete surprise.” The lightning pace had left an impression.

It was just a glimpse, just a moment, but an opportunity taken by Shaffelburg. More opportunity came Jacob’s way. He represented Nova Scotia at the 2017 Canada Games in Winnipeg, and although his team wasn’t the greatest, Shaffelburg stood out, worked hard, and battled through all kinds of physical play. Shaffelburg ended up breaking his foot at the tournament. Toronto FC scouts once again came away impressed by his ability and resiliency. Shaffelburg linked back up with TFC III again in March 2018, featuring in the team at the Dallas Cup.

It was another chance for Wray and his staff to evaluate Shaffelburg against top competition. Toronto FC was in a group featuring Manchester United. Wray gets excited thinking back on the game against United. “Jacob was great. Manchester United had a tough time dealing with his pace. His north-south game caused problems, and this is Manchester United we’re talking about. They were a very good group, and Jacob stood out.”

Toronto FC knew at this point they wanted Jacob on a professional contract. He ticked all the boxes. But instead of signing at that time, Shaffelburg elected to return to Berkshire School for his final season. There was a loyalty and appreciation by the player to give everything he had to the place that opened the door for him. He didn’t disappoint, with Berkshire School going 19-0 on the season, leading the way to the school’s fifth championship in seven seasons. 

Nothing came easy in recruiting Shaffelburg and convince the player and his family Toronto FC was the right next step in his career. Shaffelburg had already committed to play at the University of Virginia for the following season. And New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union were among MLS teams vying for his signature. Wray and the leadership team at TFC brought Shaffelburg and his family to Toronto for talks. They made the Shaffelburg’s feel at home. There was already a connection between Jacob and Dichio, as well as coach Jason Bent. Both coaches spoke highly of Jacob and played significant roles in development and recruitment. It was here they convinced the Shaffelburg’s of the clubs commitment to the player and the best platform to grow would be in Toronto. Jacob had grown comfortable at TFC over the previous years, making friends, establishing positive relationships and having an overall positive experience. His affinity and ties to the club proved decisive in making the decision to signing his first professional contract with Toronto FC II last November. A real coup for the club getting pen to paper with a Canadian player they saw a bright future for, and a potential diamond in the rough. At the same time, Shaffelburg received an invite to the Canada u20 camp ahead of the CONCACAF Championships. Jacob was set to have smashed it at the camp, impressive all within the Canadian set-up. The only reason he didn't play at the tournament is because the squad was named before the camp. 

Shaffelburg joined Toronto FC for preseason and immediately caught the eye. Onlookers raved about his speed and ability. As Vanney puts it, Jacob never seemed in awe by anything that was thrown his way. He was confident playing against players with far more experience and polish. Yet, if you ask Jacob, he admits he was full of nerves. “I was so nervous for the first two weeks,” said Shaffelburg. “The intensity is so much higher with the first-team. It’s the little things, the attention to detail. But once I got to know the guys and realized they are all human, the nerves went away and I was just focused on being patient.” 

Shaffelburg was so good in the preseason the coaching staff wanted to sign him right away. He made enough of an impression that Vanney played him for the final 33 minutes of the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League in Panama. On a miserable night and a 4-0 loss, Shaffelburg came out with positive reviews from his coach. For a team in desperate need of a wing player with speed, that can get behind the lines, Shaffelburg fit the bill. But a first-team contract wasn’t in the works, at least not yet. Shaffelburg was still in the process of accumulating the necessary hours to qualify as a Homegrown Player. Homegrown status in MLS requires 150 days of soccer activity with the club over the last calendar year. And despite spending considerable time in Toronto, Shaffelburg fell short. Signing the player to a regular contract made no sense, considering the various benefits of Homegrown status. So it was best to wait for long-term benefit.

There are three main benefits to having Homegrown status; 1) the player is protected from future MLS expansion (Nashville and Austin are on the horizon, plus further plans for league expansion), 2) his salary doesn’t count against the cap and working in a different category altogether, and 3) 100 percent of any future transfer fee if the player is sold would come directly back to Toronto FC. Week after week as Vanney was searching for options on the wing, frustration would grow as the days slipped away. Jacob in the meantime continue to work hard, starring for TFC II, scoring two goals and assisting on three others in 12 appearances in USL League One. And just two days after Jacob met the requirements, Shaffelburg became a Homegrown first-team signing.

To the surprise of nobody at TFC, Jacob hit the ground running. A day after signing, Shaffelburg made his MLS debut at Dallas. And five days after that, a scintillating performance under the lights at BMO Field. It’s all moved fast, fitting for a player with blazing speed. So far, so good for Shaffelburg. But there is still much work to do. Shaffelburg’s excellent attacking play, crossing ability and desire to run into space was plain to see Wednesday. Vanney came away impressive with the bravery of the player, and he’ll most certainly keep his role in the team, playing a position of desperate need.

Vanney looks forward to working with Jacob more to bring out the best in the played. He calls Jacob one of the nicest kids he’s ever met. A small-town, Canadian boy looked like a deer in the headlights after his post-game media scrum Wednesday night. The bright lights on him, with his teammates cheering and chanting his name in the background. It was all overwhelming. And after the cameras went off, Jacob just stood in front of the assembled media, not sure about what to do next. It was all a blur. Getting used to the outside noise comes with the territory. But Vanney wants the player to develop a little bit of nasty. Jacob’s the guy looking to help the opponent up from the ground; he’s just too nice. “You see that he has that edge in his attacking play,” says Vanney. “He’s got some bite, and he’ll need to nourish that to bring out that competitive edge.  And once he develops that relentless personality, he’ll add that chip on his shoulder that he will be great. That’s what makes young Canadian players like Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies so great; they have the personality to go for it.”

In the meantime, Shaffelburg is trying to just keep his head on straight while focusing on his football. His newfound fame has drawn the attention and adulation in his hometown.  There is a lot of pride on the East Coast. After signing for TFC II, family friends, including the women at church started watching Toronto FC games. “They kept asking my Mom where I was and why I wasn’t on the field. But it’s pretty cool that everyone is watching and they are behind me.” They won’t have to ask where Jacob is any longer. He’s made it.  And like the rest of us, Nova Scotia will be watching as the player grows as part of Toronto FC.