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Shaffelburg faces soccer superstar for second time
Jacob Shaffelburg celebrated his 10th birthday at his Port Williams home mere days before Lionel Messi was honoured with his first Ballon d'Or award in Paris.
Hard to fathom 14 years later that their careers would intersect on the soccer pitch.
Even at that young age with Valley United minor soccer, Shaffelburg's prodigious talent was evident. It would blossom into a promising pro career.
Across the pond, the 22-year-old Messi had rocketed into the soccer stratosphere, leading Barcelona to the first treble (three trophies in a single season) in Spanish football and winning the first of a record seven Ballon d'Or, given to the best football player in the world.
Fast forward to a muggy Aug. 19 evening at Geodis Park in Nashville and Shaffelburg enters the championship final of the inaugural Leagues Cup in the 72nd minute against Inter Miami.
As Shaffelburg jogs onto the pitch, he looks over to his opponent donning the pink kit and, there he was, the world's most popular football player.
“To be honest, when I first came on the pitch, I glanced over to Messi just to believe that this was true. I had to pinch myself a little bit,” Shaffelburg said of his matchup with Messi.
“It was the coolest of my life so far. My parents were in attendance and my dad, before the game, looked at me and said, ‘here you are, coming from a small town and now you're playing on the big stage.' It was crazy.”
Shaffelburg scored in the 10th round of a marathon penalty shootout, firing a low shot to the left of Miami keeper Drake Callender.
But Callender converted his own penalty on Miami's next attempt. He then turned around and denied Nashville keeper Elliot Panicco on the final kick of the night to deliver Inter Miami its first trophy.
“All around it was just a crazy experience,” Shaffelburg recalled. “And to say I scored on a penalty kick in the final, that was really cool because that was my first one ever.”
Messi opened the scoring in the 23rd minute in the match, his 10th goal of the inaugural tournament. A week later, in his MLS regular season debut, he notched a stunning goal in a 2-0 victory over New York Red Bulls on Saturday night, which snapped Miami's 12-game winless skid in league play.
Since the Argentinian superstar landed in America to further his career, Inter Miami has won eight straight games.
Their next match was scheduled for Wednesday evening, Aug. 30, when they welcomed Shaffelburg and Nashville SC to south Florida.
“It should be another good game,” Shaffelburg said ahead of the game. “We had come out of the Leagues Cup in a really positive place and a confident place.
“It's hard for players to play Wednesdays and Saturdays every week, so we'll see what they have. With their schedule and the situation that they're in, it should be tough. But it should be a great game.”
A Leagues Cup final matchup between Miami and Nashville seemed improbable when the in-season tournament began. Nashville entered Leagues Cup play having lost five of its final six MLS matches.
“It was a good time to reset,” said Shaffelburg, who suffered a calf injury and was substituted early into the Leagues Cup semifinal against Monterrey on Aug. 15.
“It was a new tournament, a new thing, a good time to go all-in and break out of the league play and get back some
earlier of that confidence we had in the year. I'm just trying to ride that wave and keeping it going until the end of the year.”
Nashville also returned to league play on Saturday at Atlanta United FC but was handed a 4-0 defeat, dropping its MLS record to 11-9-5.
“It was tough coming off the loss in the Leagues Cup,” Shaffelburg continued. “But we have proved to ourselves that we can do something special. It's one thing to have talent but we are all on the same mindset that we can ride this wave.”
Shaffelburg has become a fan favourite in Music City for his spark and speed on the outside since joining Nashville a year ago.
Toronto FC — which signed Shaffelburg as a homegrown player in June 2019 — originally loaned the leftfooted attacker to Nashville on Aug. 2, 2022. The teams agreed to a permanent transaction later that November and Nashville signed Shaffelburg to a four-year contract.
He has started 12 matches this season and has managed three goals — tied for third in team scoring — on 23 shots.
“Right from his very first appearance and minutes, we just saw how bright and purposeful Jacob could be,” Nashville head coach Gary Smith said. “His pace is easy to pinpoint as a very positive aspect of his game.
“I do think he has improved since he's been here,” Smith continued. “His individual work, his ability to take players on, to make those choices and connect all that with some creativity and deft individual work has been very pleasing and positive for the group. He certainly has been a really nice addition to this group.”
As much as he loves playing in Nashville, Shaffelburg has been having trouble beating the heat.
While it has cooled off in the Tennessee capital the past couple days, temperatures at the end of last week reached 37 C with a high humidity.
“It's been tough,” the fairskinned Shaffelburg said. “Once my face gets red, it doesn't cool off. I have to be careful with my skin, I burn pretty easily. It's not enjoyable. When I get back home, I don't leave the place. I like the AC. But that's a part of Nashville. I'm getting used to it.”
“All around it was just a crazy experience.” Jacob Shaffelburg