Coach Greg Vanney recalls the first time he saw Jacob Shaffelburg training with the Toronto FC first team.
Defender Chris Mavinga went to retrieve a ball with Shaffelburg, playing on his wrong wing, steaming towards him from distance. Mavinga is one of the MLS team’s most athletic players but found himself suddenly forced to kick into high gear to beat the pacey teenager to the ball.
"Outstanding … The kid can run all day and he’s incredibly fast," Vanney said after Shaffelburg’s first start, June 26 against Atlanta.
"He puts a ton of pressure on the backline and outside backs … He’s done it since Day 1 of pre-season."
Vanney describes the 19-year-old Canadian left-winger as fearless. "He knows who he is and he just does what he does," he said.
In order to sign Shaffelburg as a homegrown player, Toronto had to wait while he accumulated the necessary time rising through the ranks. As a homegrown player, his wages are exempt from the salary cap and he will avoid the coming expansion draft.
He joined the TFC academy in 2016 but had limited time there because he was attending the Berkshire School in Massachusetts, whose soccer alumni includes former New York City FC midfielder Jack Harrison.
Shaffelburg came to Toronto’s attention after assistant GM Corey Wray saw a highlight reel. He spent a week at the academy during his Grade 10 year and spent another month there the next year. He signed a USL contract in November 2018 ahead of the Toronto FC 2 season.
Things moved quickly after that. He signed with the first team as a homegrown player on June 21 and made his senior debut the next day, coming on as a substitute in a 3-0 loss at FC Dallas.
The native of Port Williams, N.S., has played in all seven games since, starting six of them.
Toronto (9-9-5) continues its run of games against Eastern Conference opposition on Saturday when it visits the New York Red Bulls (10-9-4).
Toronto has won three of its last four outings, dispatching visiting FC Cincinnati 2-1 last time out. But trips to New York have traditionally been a challenge. The Red Bulls are 11-2-2 all-time at home against Toronto. TFC’s 2-0 victory in March 2016 marked its first-ever win at Red Bull Arena.
The Red Bulls had their five-game home undefeated streak ended last week in a 3-2 loss to Columbus Crew SC. Captain Luis Robles called the contest "a reality check."
"We got out-duelled, we got out-competed, we got outscored," he said after the game.
While Toronto has added to its wing options with the recent signing of Venezuelan Erickson Gallardo and France’s Nicolas Benezet, Vanney says Shaffelburg will continue to play a big role.
"He’s earned it," he said.
The Toronto coach has long wanted options on the flank, wide players who can beat defenders and run off the ball to give players like Alejandro Pozuelo, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado a target.
"Those guys are good passers. You’ve got to have runners," he said.
"I love to run … Playing with the first team, they’re able to pick you out so easily. If you make a good run, they’ll get the ball to you," he said.
This season has been a wild ride for Shaffelburg, who spent time with the first team during training camp in California. While playing for TFC 2, he says he got a little more comfortable every time he was asked to join the first team in practice.
"It was super-helpful for me because the first week I was here, I’d wake up an hour before my alarm because I was so nervous to come in to train with TFC 2," he admitted. "But now since going on that trip I was able to meet everybody a bit better and get comfortable. And since then it’s been amazing so far."
The five-foot-10, 150-pounder says he has tried hard to stay grounded but admits he had a moment walking out next to Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic when Toronto played the Los Angeles Galaxy.
"It was pretty cool just to see him. And he’s a big dude too," he said.
Shaffelburg is still living in a nearby apartment he shares with Toronto FC 2 players Patrick Bunk-Andersen and Eric Klenofsky. While some of his senior teammates arrive at training in luxury cars, he either takes an Uber or catches a ride with Klenofsky.
While he says he has yet to be recognized on the street — "Maybe one day," he said with a laugh — he was amazed to see a fan wearing his jersey who had driven all the way from Nova Scotia on the day of a game.
"To see that was just kind of mind-blowing," he said. "I never really thought that I would see the day that someone has my name on the back. Like they bought it and customized my name and did all that. It’s very crazy."
Growing up, Shaffelburg supported Manchester United with winger Ryan Giggs his favourite player.
Away from training, he likes to play "Fortnite" with friends from school.
"It helps us keep in touch, it’s a good time," he said of the popular online video game. "I’m awful at it but I’ve got some other guys that are pretty good that will carry me."
TORONTO FC (9-9-5) AT NEW YORK RED BULLS (10-9-4)
Saturday, Red Bull Arena.
WHO’S HOT: Toronto’s Jozy Altidore has scored in his last four games, matching his career-best scoring run in a single season. Red Bulls forward Brian White has scored in his last two outings and has scored five goals in his last seven matches, dating back to June 8.
LAST TIME: Toronto won 3-1 on July 17 at BMO Field, TFC’s first victory in the series since Sept. 30, 2017.