On a cool, calm autumn night in his home province of Ontario, Derek Cornelius was a part of history.
In front of a crowd of 17,126, Cornelius and Canada MNT knocked off their American rivals in a stunning 2-0 win at BMO Field. It was the first time the Canadians had defeated the United States since 1985.
“It was a roller coaster of a week,” Cornelius said. “We have a really good group there with the national team and a lot of really good players, not just their footballing capacity but them as people. There's a lot of players on that team that feel like they have something to prove to the world, to their clubs, to themselves. I think it's through games like that that really start to allow people to see the real quality that's in Canada and Canada's football. That’s why I think it meant so much because we know individually within our group that we have the quality, we have the players, we have the belief.”
While coming full circle, Cornelius’ journey spans more than just Canada. The young defender has seen his fair share of the world—with stops in Germany and Serbia in his professional career before arriving in Vancouver.
On his second consecutive Canada Day back in his home country, Cornelius reflects on his journey.
“I've put in and sacrificed a lot to get to where I am right now,” Cornelius said. “I'm always grateful for where I am right now and happy to be able to represent such a great country in doing the sport that I love. I also don't want to become complacent and just be happy where I am, I still need those new challenges, I need to always look for ways to continue to grow and to be better in any way I can.”
Those challenges presented themselves early to Cornelius as the teenager found moving overseas difficult in many regards. With those difficulties, however, came valuable experience.
“I didn't know the language, I didn't know the culture, I didn't know the people so I was really going into it cold turkey and just trying to figure out how I’m going to cope, how I'm going to handle it day by day,” Cornelius said. “All of that put together made me stronger mentally, and then on the field being able to play with another player even though they don't speak the same language as you. It was definitely a growing experience for me.”
After spending the beginning of his professional career with German clubs VfB Lübeck and VfR Neumünster, Cornelius would make a move to Serbian side FK Javor Ivanjica in 2017 before finally returning to Canada with Whitecaps FC in 2019. After arriving in Vancouver, Cornelius still hangs on to what he learned overseas.
“It's just about being mentally strong,” Cornelius said. “When you go through adversity just know that you always have to keep going and never give up and continue doing the things that got me to where I am today. So even if a situation is not exactly going how I wanted it to go, I continue doing the small things day by day in order to become better and not losing sight of my goals.”
While admittedly not being very familiar with Vancouver at first, Cornelius was eager to move back to his home country following his time in Serbia and tackle a new challenge.
“It was exciting and it was a new challenge,” Cornelius said of the move. “I love new challenges, being in different places, trying to see if I can handle the new challenges, so it was exciting. I felt like I would be more comfortable on a day to day basis being back in my home country.”
Since being back in Canada for the past year and a half, Cornelius has seen his role as a player for Canada MNT expand and evolve as he looks to take on a supportive role to younger players.
“I try and always lead by example,” Cornelius said. “I try and do my part and then make sure that everyone is really being tied in off the field and on the field so not just tactically into what we're doing, but there's also an element to putting the team before yourself. Any chance I get, I try to help any other players that may need that sort of guidance.”
As a member of a group of young, exciting and talented Canadians suiting up for their country, Cornelius understands what it means to represent the nation and what the group is poised for.
“We all believe in each other, believe in ourselves, believe in our system, what we're doing,” Cornelius described. “Everyone's got to go on their different paths, but I think every young Canadian has real dreams of reaching the top, trying to play at the highest levels and top leagues in the world. You already have players out there like Phonzie showing us it's possible.”
On this Canada Day and every day that Cornelius represents Vancouver and Canada alike, the defender focuses on the humility, responsibility, and longevity associated with representing his home of Canada.
“You always have that feeling of being proud to represent your country, to put on the red shirt and go out there and give your best for your country and the guys around you,” Cornelius said. “But I think, naturally it changes because then you take on more responsibility and you feel like the more times you put on the jersey, the more times you need to show the way to a new kid coming up who is going through what you already went through in terms of putting it on for the first time, keeping his head on the right way and making sure that everyone who puts on that red jersey is knowing the reasons why they're putting it on.
“We always say we want to leave it in a better place so that's being able to see where it is now, before I put on the jersey and by the time you put down the jersey knowing how you can leave it in a better place,” Cornelius concluded.