Ajax centre back to take centre stage for Canada at COPA soccer tournament

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Published June 20, 2024 at 9:00 am

Derek Cornelius
Canada men's national soccer team starting centre back Derek Cornelius in action against world #2 France

A couple of local faces will be wearing Canada’s colours at Thursday night’s opening match of the COPA football championships, with one athlete grabbing hold of a starting position after strong performances in tune-up matches earlier month against world soccer powers France and Netherlands.

Derek Cornelius, an Ajax native who plies his trade for Malmo in Sweden’s top division, lined up at centre back against Netherlands (#7 in the world) and France (#2) and takes on an even tougher assignment in Atlanta against Lionel Messi and a number one ranked Argentina squad that also happens to be the defending COPA and World Cup champion.

Is he up to the challenge? Canada’s new head coach, Jesse Marsch certainly thinks, and has this to say about 26-year-old Cornelius and his centre back partner, Moïse Bombito.

“I thought tactically, they were really sharp. Their connection was good. They performed well. It gives us real optimism on how to continue to build with those guys.”

Tom Nightingale of Canadian Soccer Daily agreed and said the starting spot on the national team belongs to Cornelius.

“Derek Cornelius has found his place in this Canadian men’s national team. It’s in the lineup at centre-back, for now and for the foreseeable future.”

Marsch had just two warm-up games before diving into the kind of major tournament action Canada had been dreaming of for decades pre-2022, Nightingale added. “In those kinds of situations, you surely don’t play the same central defensive duo in both friendlies if they’re not the guys you want to roll with come COPA América kickoff time.”

“And after passing not one but two auditions against top-seven nations with flying colours, Derek Cornelius is as good as locked in.”

The other Durham Region product on Canada’s men’s team is Pickering’s Dayne St. Clair, who played admirably in the 4-0 loss to the Dutch but was the back-up to Maxime Crepeau in the 0-0 draw with France and will likely have the same role in the COPA matches against Argentina, Chile and Peru.

St. Clair, who plays for Minnesota in the MLS, was brilliant in the first half against the Netherlands before the roof caved in a bit in the second half versus one of the world’s top sides, though one Twitter user noted that he “found a way to stand out in a loss – very athletic and makes himself big to cut down angles well.”

St. Clair has been vying with Crepeau for the starting job in net since the end of the Milan Borjan era and was the back up to Borjan in the 2022 World Cup after Crepeau broke his leg in the 2022 MLS Cup final – two weeks before the World Cup.

Cornelius has been unheralded but on a steady rise in recent years. He came up through the Ajax soccer system and was playing U-8 rep at just six years old and has since played all over the world, including Russia and Germany as a teen.

His senior career began with stints at two German clubs before moving to Serbian Super League side Javor Ivanjica (2016-19), Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS (2019-21) and Panetolikos in Greece before heading to Sweden, where he has made 49 appearances, scored six goals and hoisted a championship trophy with Malmo.

His performance with Malmo and his new stature with Canada’s national team has him linked to transfers to Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam and Feyenoord Rotterdam so he may be on the move from Sweden after this tournament. He has been capped 20 times by Canada but only seven of those have come in the last four years as he didn’t appear to be favoured by former national team manager John Herdman.

All that could change in a hurry by summer’s end.

Kick-off against Argentina is 8 p.m., with all games on TSN.

Derek Cornelius with his club team, Malmo of Sweden

ARGENTINA
FIFA world ranking: No. 1
2021 Copa América: Champions
Group A schedule: vs Canada (June 20), vs Chile (June 25), vs Peru (June 29)
Argentina, who have won this tournament 14 times (their 2021 title was only one this century) have lost just one of the 14 games they’ve played since beating France in the 2022 FIFA World Cup final in Qatar and enter this tournament as the No. 1 ranked team in the world. Is this the swan song for Messi or does the superstar have enough left to help his country repeat as World Cup champions in two years time?

CHILE
FIFA world ranking: No. 42
2021 Copa América: Quarter-finals
Group A schedule: vs Peru (June 21), vs Argentina (June 25), vs Canada (June 29)
Chile is getting a bit old, with four starters 34 or older, but La Roja, who have won COPA twice (2015 and 2016), have some young guns and are always dangerous in this tournament.
CANADA
FIFA world ranking: No. 49
Group A schedule: vs Argentina (June 20), vs Peru (June 25), vs Chile (June 29)
Canada’s performances have been so-so since qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and needed to qualify for this tournament via the playoffs after being upset by Jamaica in a two-game series. But new coach Marsch has injected some fresh ideas and has plenty of good young talent at his disposal and the team’s most recent match – the scoreless draw vs Kylian Mbappé and France – gave the team a big shot of confidence and a tease that there may some major upsets in Canada’s future.

PERU 
FIFA world ranking: No. 32
2021 Copa América: Semifinals (Fourth place)
Group A schedule: vs Chile (June 21), vs Canada (June 25), vs Argentina (June 29)
Peru, who earned COPA championships in 1939 and 1975, won just one of 10 games last year and are currently last in the South American World Cup qualifiers. If there’s a win in this tournament to be had for Canada, this could be it.

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