Here at Broadway Sports Media, we recently introduced a new series on our feed.
Each time a Nashville SC player reaches a milestone in appearances for the club (25, 50, 100, 150, 200, and so on…), we will take a snapshot look at their history for the Boys in Gold.
Last Sunday against Columbus, Jacob Shaffelburg hit a milestone by making his 25th appearance for the club.
Jacob Shaffelburg arrived in Nashville via a last-minute loan agreement with Toronto FC. Mike Jacobs sent $225,000 GAM to Toronto in exchange for Shaffelburg plus an international slot. The loan came with a permanent transfer option that Nashville could exercise at the end of the 2022 season. After Shaffelburg immediately sparked the Coyotes’ attack, it was a no-brainer for Nashville to exercise the option which sent an additional $300,000 GAM to the Reds.
Prior to his arrival in Music City, Shaffelburg had spent his entire professional career with Toronto FC. He signed his first professional contract with TFC II in November 2018, two days after his 19th birthday. After making his senior team debut in Concacaf Champions League in early 2019, he eventually signed a homegrown deal with the parent club that summer.
When Shaffelburg touched down in Tennessee, it was not his first time being part of a Nashville-based club. As a 12-year-old, Shaffelburg joined FC Nashville Heroes for a summer. Searching for opportunities outside of Nova Scotia, he bounced around youth programs before eventually landing with TFC. With Toronto, Shaffelburg never could quite land a consistent role with the club. At times played out-of-position as a wingback, he only once had double-digit starts in a season. With Toronto spending big money on Lorenzo Insigne to play in Shaffelburg’s left-winger role, Shaffelburg became expendable – cue the trade to Nashville.
Upon the transfer being made permanent after the 2022 season, Jacob Shaffelburg signed a new contract with Nashville SC. In 2023, the Canadian will earn a guaranteed compensation of $195,000. As I discussed after the MLSPA Salary Guide release, it may be a contract that Shaffelburg comes to regret as he has already outplayed his salary.
What the numbers say
After 25 matches in the Blue and Gold, Jacob Shaffelburg has scored 5 goals with no assists. While that may not sound overly impressive, some of Shaffelburg’s underlying attacking numbers are jaw-dropping.
According to American Soccer Analysis, Shaffelburg has produced 0.40 goals added per 96 minutes. Among all qualifying wingers, the Canadian trails only LAFC’s Denis Bouanga. Compared to the rest of the league, Shaffelburg’s rate is 10th best overall among all positions – two spots higher than even Hany Mukhtar.
The same outlet ranks Shaffelburg 8th among qualifying wingers in expected goals per 96 minutes.
Looking at Opta’s calculations, Shaffelburg leads Nashville this season in non-penalty expected goals per match, ahead of Mukhtar.
Where Shaffelburg truly stands out from the rest of the league is his progressive carriers. He makes 3.75 progressive carries per match, trailing only Mukhtar for the team lead. More impressively, he leads all of MLS with the highest average carry distance progressed in all MLS (11.75 meters).
While Shaffelburg receiving and carrying the ball into dangerous areas has been elite, other elements of his game do not produce the same lofty numbers.
Since he joined Nashville, Shaffelburg ranks 48th of 83 wingers in Key Passes and 47th in expected assists (xA). He makes very few progressive passes (1.88 per match), but that is largely a result of him being on the receiving end of such vertical attacks.
More troubling, he completes 4.33 passes less than would be expected per 100 passes made. It ranks 317th of 337 qualifying MLS players. However, I have a bit of beef with the statistical category as it seems to punish attacking players more despite supposedly being designed to adequately measure a true expected completion rate.
In defense, Shaffelburg makes 1.38 interceptions per match, the highest among Nashville’s attacking players. However, his 18.8% tackling percentage only eclipses Teal Bunbury and is the second-worst on the squad.
The eye test
Outside of Hany Mukhtar, Jacob Shaffelburg might be the easiest player for a casual observer to understand. His speed jumps off the screen, especially when he makes a late substitute appearance against a tired defense.
It is not a trait that you can teach. You either have it or you don’t. Shaffelburg’s speed is an absolute weapon and the one elite trait that he can use over and over again.
However, you can have all the speed in the world but you still won’t make it far in professional soccer without a baseline of technical ability. If you don’t believe me, look up Usain Bolt’s brief soccer career. A few A-League friendly goals aside, he never made it far cosplaying as a soccer professional.
Shaffelburg may not be a technical marvel compared to his peers in MLS, but he has enough skill and finishing ability to capitalize on the moments that he creates.
In a lot of ways, Shaffelburg’s acquisition was the exact medicine that the doctor ordered for an ailing attack. Prior to his debut, Nashville had been sputtering along winless in its previous six matches. When Shaffelburg made his debut, the ‘Yotes immediately reeled off four-straight wins and rescued their playoff chances.
Most importantly, Shaffelburg gives Hany Mukhtar another dangerous runner to collaborate with in counterattacking sequences.
The best versions of NSC’s attack have always come when Mukhtar was provided running mates. Think back to the successful 2021 season. The attacking highlights often featured Mukhtar, Randall Leal, and C.J. Sapong running downhill at opposing defenders.
Due to injury and poor form, Leal and Sapong provided little impact last season for Muktar. The trade for Shaffelburg immediately corrected some of those issues by giving Mukhtar a running mate and someone else that the opposition had to keep an eye on.
As long as Shaffelburg continues to provide that aid to Mukhtar, he will continue to have a role with this club.
This past winter, Nashville SC locked up Jacob Shaffelburg to a four-year contract with a team option for a fifth season in 2027. The deal keeps the Canadian under club control until he turns 28 years old. At just $195,000 in annual salary, he is already one of the league’s best values.
My guess is Mike Jacobs will eventually do right by the player and give him a further salary increase. If not, it won’t be long before rival clubs come knocking at the door seeking a trade or transfer.
In the meantime, the bigger question for Nashville is whether Shaffelburg should supplant Fafà Picault in the starting lineup. Personally, I think Gary Smith has got this one right with regular rotation between the pair. In most scenarios, Picault adds more in defense and is best utilized for the majority of the match. Whereas, Shaffelburg’s pace is amplified when coming on fresh against tired legs.
Substitutes that can create danger off the bench are a luxury worth maintaining. The depth to bring someone off the bench to find a goal is often the line of demarcation between the good and truly great teams in this salary-capped league.
If MLS had a version of the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, Shaffelburg would be a prime contender for the honors. He is a difference maker for Nashville SC and should continue to do so for years to come.