VANCOUVER, BC – The 2018 season was a coming out party for Derek Cornelius.
In the spring, he was a part of the Canadian side that participated in the International espoirs Provence Toulon for the very first time – a prestigious youth competition that once featured the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, and Thierry Henry.
Not only did he participate, Cornelius was a standout performer, leading Canada to an undefeated group stage in which they conceded just one goal against Portugal, Japan, and Turkey.
Later in the year, he would make his first three appearances for the senior men’s national team, which were all clean sheet victories. For his efforts, the 21-year-old centre back was named Canada’s 2018 youth international player of the year – a particularly impressive feat considering the amount of top young talent coming through the pipeline.
And now, Cornelius has his sights set on a bigger and better 2019.
For club and country.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC announced on Friday that the club has acquired Cornelius from Serbian side FK JavorIvanjica, signing the defender through 2020 with options for 2021 and 2022.
“I heard about Vancouver’s [interest] through contact with my agents a few months ago but over the last month I think things really heated up,” Cornelius said. “And I told my agent it’s a destination where I want to go, a place where I want to play my football.”
“I hope to bring more clean sheets, a solid back line, but all in all, we all play this sport to win,” he added. “If I can do whatever it takes to help the club win, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Cornelius fits the mould of the centre back new ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos has been targeting. He’s aggressive, he’s comfortable on the ball, and he has the ability to cover ground quickly, which are all characteristics that Dos Santos has spoken about in recent weeks.
Many of those characteristics can be attributed to Cornelius’ previous experience as a striker, which had been his position until making the switch three years ago while playing in Serbia’s top-flight. It’s a similar path to that of accomplished English centre back Rio Ferdinand, who was also an attacking player during his youth and someone Cornelius referred to as an “idol.”
The progression Cornelius has shown since converting to centre back has been quite impressive. And at just 21 years old, there’s still plenty of room for further development.
“I’m willing to learn different styles of play, how Marc wants us to be playing, and just trying to bring composure, trying to bring that will to win,” Cornelius said. “If someone needs a push, then I’m going to try to push them to help us get over the line and just be there for the person beside me.”
One such player could be fellow Whitecaps FC centre back Doneil Henry.
Cornelius formed a pairing in the middle of defence alongside Henry in two of his three appearances with the Canadian men’s national team in 2018. Though the competition they were facing wasn’t elite, the duo didn’t concede a single goal, offering a glimpse of what could be a very important pairing for Canada as they look towards the 2022 FIFA World Cup and beyond.
The Ontario natives got along well during their time with the national team, and Cornelius said his recent conversations with Henry played a role in his decision to join the club.
“He was telling me it’s a nice place to be,” said Cornelius, who hails from Ajax, Ontario. “Great facilities, great coaches, great staff, and a stable environment to play your football. It sounded like a place where you want to play.”
And a place Cornelius wants to help achieve new heights.
“That’s mostly what I’m thinking about coming to Vancouver. I want to try and leave my mark here. To not just come through, but to really leave my mark,” he said. “We have a lot of new players coming in. It’s a really good time to come to Vancouver and be a Whitecap and hopefully this will be a group of guys that a lot of people will remember.”