"I've loved it so far": Nashville SC loanee Jacob Shaffelburg is loving life at new club - and the feeling is mutual
With the arrival of a new Italian attacking duo to TFC, that left Jacob Shaffelburg short on playing time as MLS’s summer transfer deadline neared back in August.
After entering this year as a potential starter at left wing for TFC, having put up a strong run at the end of 2021, the arrival of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi this summer then put those plans on hold for the 22-year-old, who was instead shifted elsewhere in the lineup for most of this season.
As a result, after having played a career-high 1536 minutes across all competitions in 2021, he then only played 608 minutes throughout his team’s first 20 or so games in 2022, many of those minutes out of position, leaving him on the outside looking in as the stretch run neared.
Because of that, it was decided that it’d be best for both sides to send Shaffelburg on loan, a move that was made official on August 2nd, when Shaffelburg joined Nashville SC on a six-month loan with an option to buy, along with an international spot, in exchange for $225 000 in GAM.
There, Shaffelburg has been fully embraced by the Music City, who have been quite pleased with the premiere of their latest young talent, a feeling that has so far been mutual for the young Nova Scotian and his family, who feel right at home at Nashville already, both on and off the field.
“Yeah, I've loved it so far,” Shaffelburg told OneSoccer during Nashville’s visit to Vancouver last week. “Everyone's been so nice, it kinda reminds me of home, as that southern hospitality is similar to Nova Scotia’s in my opinion, as well as my girlfriend's, too.”
“And the soccer has been amazing, so it's been great so far.”
As a result, he’s hit the ground running for Nashville, scoring two goals in his first three games, while also winning a penalty, making an instant impact in the 134 minutes that he’s been able to garner under head coach Gary Smith’s tutelage.
JACOB SHAFFELBURG LOVES A GOAL AT GEODIS PARK pic.twitter.com/zK2zJkZGgL— Nashville SC (@NashvilleSC) September 1, 2022
In a rare MLS intra-league loan, Nashville are certainly grateful that Shaffelburg became available the way that he did, and will hope that he can keep this good run of form going as they continue their push towards the playoffs now here.
“Yeah, I mean, it doesn't happen very often, as has been rightly pointed out, so I think we've been fortunate, and also grateful that we can get the deal done with Toronto,” Smith told OneSoccer. “I'm sure it's a consequence of the multitude of riches that they have up there, so unfortunately for Jacob, he fell down the pecking order, but Toronto’s loss is hopefully our gain in this short period, and hey, who knows, maybe it'll become a longer-term gain.”
Yet, while this good start to life with Nashville has caught the eye of some, for those who know Shaffelburg, they’ll know that he’s always had the ability to capture form in a bottle. Just look at how things went for him at TFC last year.
There, he caught fire in the fall, racking up three goals and six assists in a span between September 19th and November 3rd, all while generating chance creation numbers that were among the best in MLS at his position.
As a result, despite being on a team that missed the playoffs by 20 points, and lost in the Canadian Championship final, he was arguably TFC’s brightest light over the second half of their season, making him a piece to watch for this year.
In his third year as a professional, he’d finally taken the step that many were waiting for him to take, making for a memorable run for him, one that he looks back on fondly.
“I was just in a groove,” Shaffelburg reflected on that run. “You get in a groove, and things start going right for you, the ball keeps going your way, and I guess that's what was happening for me.”
“Similar to this past weekend, that goal I had (his first for Nashville), maybe any other day it’s saved, but it just went in, so it's that kind of luck that was going for me last year, and I was just rolling off it, and then my coach and my teammates all rolled off of it.”
It’s the Jacob Shaffelburg show for #TFCLive!— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) September 30, 2021
What a run and finish from the 21 y/o for his 3rd goal of the MLS season
He’s been on fire as of late for TFC. His growth has been fantastic
He’s very much on my radar for a #CanMNT call-uppic.twitter.com/o1OdFReLKr
As a result, it led to some pretty cool honours for the then-21-year-old.
One of those was the chance to be named the Canadian Championship’s best young Canadian player, a trophy that he’ll certainly still cherish despite his club’s loss to Montréal in the final.
Another one was to make the MLS Team of the Week a few times, as well.
The biggest one, however, was to be included in the CanMNT’s squad for their October 2021 window, as a combination of absences and his hot form allowed him to join the Canadian squad for the first time in a setting that wasn’t the team’s January ‘Camp Poutine’.
“Over the last six months, you can see he's starting to mature as a player,” CanMNT head coach, John Herdman, said of Shaffelburg at the time, who he later called a ‘shining light’. “He’s making better decisions, better timing of his movement.”
“What I've always loved about Jacob are his tenacity and his growth mindset, so I’m really excited to work with him again."
There, he even got to see the field twice for a total of 10 minutes, meaning that he technically played a part in Canada’s progression to the men’s World Cup for the first time in 36 years, something that he reflects back on fondly.
“It was unbelievable,” Shaffelburg glowed. “I mean, the brotherhood that those guys have on the team is really cool, and to be part of it for a window was amazing.”
Along with the chance to work with the likes of wingers Alphonso Davies and Tajon Buchanan up close (he later then had a front-row view to *THAT* Davies goal against Panama), it was an opportunity that he hasn’t taken for granted, making it overall a pretty unforgettable experience for him.
“It was really cool,” he continued. “I mean I kind of fancy myself as being pretty fast, but seeing Alphonso Davies run made me feel pretty slow. So just little things like that I found so cool, as well as just how clinical they are in practice with finishing and whatever other skills it may be, they're just all top-class players.”
“So it was a really cool experience for me.”
Toronto FC's Jacob Shaffelburg has been named to the #CanMNT squad for upcoming World Cup Qualifiers in October.— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) October 1, 2021
But then, just as quickly as his dream end to 2021 started, that run then ended
Despite heading into 2022 expecting to build off of what he showed at the end of the previous season, the surprise signing of Lorenzo Insigne from Napoli meant that Shaffelburg would lose his position, starting spot and number, a big shock on all fronts.
Still wanting to keep him in the lineup, however, new head coach Bob Bradley had a suggestion for Shaffelburg when he came into his first preseason - a shift to left back.
But for Shaffelburg, who has always been more of a winger, it was a big surprise, but one that he was welcome to give a go, meaning that when 2022 kicked off, instead of leading the line, he found himself a bit deeper on the pitch than he was used to.
“Those conversations were pretty early,” he explained. “It was a pretty big shock, because first, I've never been much of a defender, and I don't think I'm that great as a defender, either. So that was a big shock, but I knew that early on, because with Lorenzo coming in, I was going to get bumped out of that left-wing position.”
And despite his surprise, he showed decently in his first few starts at that position. He found himself with a lot to do defensively, something that took some time to adjust to, but he had a lot of fun going forward, nabbing an assist in just his fourth game at the position, showing good progression on both sides of the ball.
“It did (catch me by surprise), just in the aspect that I had never played left back in my life, only at wing back before,” he continued. “So yes, that did catch me off guard, but I was open to whatever.”
“I was thankful to get some minutes at left back, as it certainly helped out my mind on the defensive side of my game, so all-in-all, it was a great experience to play at left back.”
Yet, that experiment would be short-lived for Shaffelburg. Due to an untimely injury, and then the arrival of Italian left back, Domenico Criscito, that relegated Shaffelburg to a bench role, one that saw him pick up just 31 minutes in the five games after the Italian’s arrival.
Because of that, the loan idea then came up rather quickly, all of a sudden leaving Shaffelburg on the move from the club he had spent the last four years with, as he instead headed to new digs with Nashville.
“I didn't know too much about it, actually,” Shaffelburg said of the loan to Nashville. “I kind of knew the night before it was announced that it was verbally kind of official, and then the next day that's when I found out about this new opportunity.”
At the same time, while things might not have ended how he would’ve probably liked at Toronto, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t reflect fondly on his time with the club.
Of course, he could very well return next year, as he is on loan, but should this be the end, memories of a run to MLS Cup, a Canadian Championship and some good moments in the CONCACAF Champions League will forever stick with him.
“I have no complaints, it's been amazing,” Shaffelburg said of his time with TFC. “All the ups and downs made me a better person and player, so I couldn't be more thankful for everything.”
“(Technically), I’m not done there, as I am on loan, and you never know what might happen at the end of the year, but whatever does happen, I'm very thankful for everything I’ve experienced at TFC.”
No matter how things go the rest of the way, he’s happy with how things have turned out, so will just look to give his all for Nashville, and then see how the dominoes fall.
“I’m keeping all of the doors open, keeping things one game at a time, and whatever happens, happens,” he said. “But I'll be forever grateful for the opportunity Nashville has given me, as well as forever grateful for what TFC has done for me.”
But as Smith mentioned earlier, TFC’s loss has most certainly been Nashville’s gain, as the early days have shown.
Slotting in seamlessly into their 4-1-2-1-2, he’s been able to provide an instant impact with both his speed and ability to both create and finish in the final third, be it as a starter or off the bench.
Along with his infectious personality off the pitch, where he’s fit in nicely in Nashville’s tight-knit locker room, that’s allowed him to quickly adapt to life with his new team, who have been happy to have him.
“Well, he's a terrific lad, first of all, and I mean that part of it,” Smith said. “You really don’t know when you sign a player, but he’s been very genuine, and very, very hard working. And I think you can see even from his small amount of minutes the impact that he can have in attacking areas. He has been an absolutely wonderful addition, on and off the field, and it gives us a completely different dynamic in the attack.”
“He seems very, very quick and very fresh, so we’ve really enjoyed playing with him,” Nashville midfielder, and MLS MVP Candidate, Hany Mukhtar, added. “He's a great player, he’s fast, he’s good at making the runs behind, and that's what we needed, that’s where we were struggling in the last couple of games, and he’s given it to us. So we're very proud that we could sign him.”
You add in the hard work that he’s put in on the training ground, where he’s been eager to sharpen his skills, proving that he’s so much more than just the ‘track star’ that his speed has made him known as, and that’s all just been a bonus for them.
“I'm alright with just being a track star, I like having my speed, it helps me a lot,” he explained. “But I’ve found that my crossing is getting better, I’ve been working a lot of 1v1s here since I've got here, as well as my finishing with the assistant coach, so it's all going in the right direction, so hopefully I can prove people wrong and show that I’m than just a speedster, even if I’m alright with that.”
Gary Smith on Jacob Shaffelburg: “What I expected as a player, we’ve got...I’m not sure I could’ve expected more of a return” #EveryoneN— Drake Hills (@LiveLifeDrake) September 1, 2022
So for now, the goal is simple for Shaffelburg. Make the playoffs with Nashville, try and win MLS Cup, and hopefully through that do enough to catch Herdman’s eye once again ahead of the World Cup.
Is it a lofty goal? Potentially, especially given Canada’s winger depth, but given what Shaffelburg has gone through just to get here, going from Nova Scotia to MLS in a time before the Canadian Premier League even set inroads there, he’s used to paving a new path, one he’s hoping now leads him to Qatar.
“It would be a dream, honestly,” Shaffelburg admitted. “Obviously, it's nice to get some minutes here, as well as hopefully score and do well to try to put me on the radar again, but it'd be such an amazing experience to go to the World Cup for me and my family as well just to have that.”
And hey, if that road leads Europe to one day come calling… he’ll certainly be ready for that, too.
Still young, Shaffelburg is far from done building his soccer story, of which he’s just writing the latest chapter now.
“Of course, I’d love to head to Europe,” Shaffelburg finished. “It's like every kid's dream growing up, both in the States or Canada, so if that door opens up, then, of course, I would love to explore it and see what it has to offer.”