‘Maritime Messi’: CanMNT’s Copa América star Jacob Shaffelburg has roots at the Wanderers Grounds
Canadian Premier League

Jacob Shaffelburg has set the footballing world alight at Copa América, never more so than in Friday night’s quarter-final against Venezuela, where the young star scored early in what would end as a penalty shootout win to put Canada in the semi-finals.

The Nashville SC winger has earned the affection of his entire country in the past few weeks, as even the most casual observers now know him — and, in some cases, probably assume he’s been a fixture for the Canadian men’s national team for a while. Shaffelburg’s name trended on social media in Canada on Friday as millions both at home and abroad saw his explosive, energetic style of attacking play and were immediately enamoured.

Even Sidney Crosby, a beloved son of Nova Scotia much like Shaffelburg has become, was impressed by the 24-year-old.

Before it all, though — before his international stardom, and before even his breakout in Major League Soccer — a slightly smaller community got a glimpse of what Shaffelburg could become.

A native of Port Williams, N.S., Shaffelburg spent many of the early years of his life travelling in search of places to play at a high level. From Nashville to Kansas City to New York, he bounced around the United States with a variety of youth clubs and schools.

He landed in the Toronto FC academy, and eventually propelled himself into their first team, but this is a story of the time Shaffelburg, for just one day, got to represent his home province.

In the summer of 2018, with the Canadian Premier League a year away from kicking off, the Halifax Wanderers introduced themselves on the pitch for the very first time. A one-off Atlantic Selects side, led by soon-to-be-named head coach Stephen Hart, played a friendly against German club Fortuna Düsseldorf’s U-21s at the Wanderers Grounds.

Among the Wanderers that day were future CPLers Christian Oxner, Scott Firth and Ibrahima Sanoh.

Also in the squad? Some 18-year-old called Jacob Shaffelburg.

Jacob Shaffelburg celebrates his goal for Halifax Wanderers Atlantic Selects. (Photo: Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Wanderers)

The now-Canada star came into that match at halftime and stole the show, as has become a bit of a trademark for him in the past few weeks. A match report in the Chronicle Herald recounted that Düsseldorf “could not contain him on the left side, having to resort to hauling him down intentionally just to prevent him from breaking away on two different occasions.”

Sound familiar?

Shaffelburg’s pace drew two yellow cards for the same opposing player, putting the Wanderers up a man for most of the second half. After the German side went up 2-1 with 15 minutes to play, Shaffelburg scored a minute later to equalize.

Again, it was Shaffelburg the hero who stepped up in the ensuing penalty shootout; he scored the fifth and decisive spot kick to bring all 4,809 in attendance to their feet. It was the first proper Kitchen Party at the Grounds, and Shaffelburg had made it a special one.

Until then, there had been no viable way for a player of Shaffelburg’s calibre to stay close to home and pursue a professional career. His example, though, may well give hope to the next generation of Nova Scotian youngsters, who may not need to travel the continent as he did, with a pro club like the Wanderers on their doorstep. Perhaps, much like Sidney Crosby paved the way for Nathan MacKinnon, so too will another great soccer talent emerge from the Maritimes, inspired by Shaffelburg.

Shaffelburg’s path after that day led him away from the east coast, and he wouldn’t play in his home province again until he returned as a Toronto FC player to take on the Wanderers in the 2022 Canadian Championship.

He was a sparkplug once again on that day. He set up the late winner for TFC to advance and broke Halifax hearts in the process, but still there remained a surge of Maritime pride for a local boy thriving at the professional level.

Today — six years after Shaffelburg’s one game for the Wanderers, and two years since his return to the Grounds — that pride must be stronger than ever.

The match with the Wanderers’ selects side was the first time Shaffelburg would represent his home, but not quite the last. Now, though, it’s a much larger home he’s playing for, as all of Canada comes to love the player some are now calling the Maritime Messi.

Shaffelburg has proven, time and again, that he was made for the big moments. It was true at the Gold Cup against the United States, it’s been true repeatedly at Copa América.

And it was true on that sunny July afternoon in Halifax.

Jacob Shaffelburg celebrates his goal vs. Venezuela. (Photo courtesy of Concacaf)