If you’re reading this it means that the many people reporting this story were right and I was able to hit publish on the article I started writing in anticipation of the official announcement. The Vancouver Whitecaps have signed 21-year-old Canadian centre back Derek Cornelius. If you don’t follow the fortunes of Canadians wandering through the backwaters of Europe then you probably don’t know a ton about him. Fortunately for you, I am a nerd and able to give you an overview.
Cornelius’ club career thus far has been up and down. In 2014 he joined the youth side of German 4th division side VFB Lübek. Due to some Visa issues he only made one appearance for the first team. He dropped down a level to sign with 5th division side VRF Nuemünster. He did very well at this level and he was spotted by Serbian first division side FK Javor. He was a regular starter for Javor in 2017 but the team was relegated. What happened next is a little unclear but, like a switch was flipped, Cornelius went from a player who started pretty much every game to not even making the bench. I don’t know how you go from being a first division starter, even on a relegation team, to not even making the bench in the second division. You could say maybe he didn’t play well and that contributed to their relegation, but then wouldn’t they have dropped him during the season? It’s pretty weird.
The real reason to be excited for Derek Cornelius, however, is his performances with the Canadian national team program. Cornelius has been a big favourite of John Herdman so far and the Ajax, Ontario native has really flourished with the national team. This began with a series of excellent performances at the 2018 Toulon tournament. Cornelius helped Canada keep two clean sheets, against Portugal and Turkey, and he captained the young Canadian side in a 1-1 draw with Japan. These good performances earned him a call up to the senior national team. Herdman has started Cornelius in all three of the competitive matches he’s been in charge for and Canada is yet to concede a goal (though quality of opposition is obviously a factor here). He was named young player of the year in 2018 by the CSA (It seems that this wasn’t awarded to Alphonso Davies because he had already won the overall player of the year and they didn’t want to give him literally all of the awards), beating out the likes of Liverpool’s Liam Millar and Gent sensation Jonathan David.
Style of Play:
Cornelius is similar in style to former Whitecap Tim Parker. He is extremely quick for a centre back and this makes him very good at covering space and cutting out through balls. Where he differs from Parker is he’s a lot more composed on the ball and a lot less composed off it. He makes good passes, occasionally floats a dangerous ball in behind the other team’s backline and is comfortable carrying the ball out of defence. He also plays very aggressively, often stepping up to cut out plays and flying into spectacular slide tackles. For the most part he wins those tackles but I wouldn’t be shocked if he picks up a lot of cards. Here you can see his highlights from a game against Partizan Belgrade. Partizan, along with Red Star, is one of the two titans of Serbian Football who are orders of magnitude richer and more powerful than the other Serbian teams. I figure they’re a pretty good approximation of a top half MLS team.
If you think back to everything Marc Dos Santos has said about what he wants in a centre back, it’s almost like he could have been talking specifically about Cornelius. He’s quick, takes risks, and is comfortable on the ball.
Before we get to ahead of ourselves though we must consider his weaknesses. Yes, he takes risks, but will his timing and decision making on those risks translate to MLS? That remains to be seen. At the Toulon Tournament he was immense but on one Japanese goal he was a little out of position which led to a poor headed clearance and ultimately a goal. Like many young North American centre backs he will have to work on his concentration and his positioning in order for them to catch up to his strong physical traits.
In my view, which admittedly is formed without seeing a full game of his at club level, Cornelius is a very solid #3 or #4 centre back in MLS with the potential to be molded into a starter. Some people have suggested the idea of him and Henry as the starting centre back pairing to make use of the chemistry they’ve developed on the national team. I think Henry is very underrated by Whitecaps fans but I would still be a little nervous if this centre back pairing started every game. I’m not saying it couldn’t work but it would be a very big risk that would be extremely damaging if it went wrong. I think, however, that one of those guys next to an experienced TAM level centre back could be an effective pairing though. Stylistically he’s a perfect centre back for Marc Dos Santos so it will be interesting to see if MDS is able to mould him into an MLS starter.
As a backup I think this signing is a slam dunk. From a philosophical perspective I would much rather have a young Canadian with the chance to improve than someone like Aaron Maund. But, if the idea is that he and Henry will be the starting centre back pairing then I think that’s problematic. Fortunately I doubt that’s the case (remember you’re not allowed to be upset by how the roster looks until February 8th). The Whitecaps needed multiple centre backs and they got one who is young, domestic, and has the potential to improve. It’s not the most exciting signing ever but you need good depth in MLS and good depth that could be developed into a cheap starter that facilitates more money being spent on difference makers is the best sort. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the level he was playing at in Europe. Remember, the reigning MLS defender of the year, Aaron Long, was cut by Seattle’s reserve team. A player with good qualities put in a system that fits them can be very effective in MLS.