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Rising Ajax soccer star helps Canada to historic win over United States

By Brian McNair, 09/28/20, 9:00AM EDT


Ajax Soccer player making impact

AJAX — Canada’s win over the United States in men’s soccer on Oct. 15 was huge, make no mistake, but it may pale in comparison if it can be repeated on Nov. 15, when the same two teams clash in Orlando.

That’s the sole focus now for the Canadian squad, which includes 21-year-old centre back Derek Cornelius of Ajax, one of the many bright young lights on the team.

Cornelius played all 90 minutes of Canada’s historic win at BMO Field in Toronto, a 2-0 decision that ended a 34-year winless drought against the neighbours to the south and improved Canada’s record to 3-0-0 in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football Nations League play.

But with the ultimate goal to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, another win in Florida would go a long way in proving the win was no fluke and moving Canada up the rankings toward that destination.

“It was an awesome win for us, but we know that we’ve got to focus and prepare for round two, which is going to be even harder in the States,” Cornelius said during a phone conversation from Vancouver, where he plays for the Whitecaps of Major League Soccer. “So, yeah, we know it was big, but we have another game to look forward to, so we can’t get too caught up.”

Cornelius and the rest of the Canadian squad certainly got caught up in the excitement for that night at least. Playing before a raucous home crowd of 17,126, Canada prevailed on the strength of second-half goals from Alphonso Davies and Lucas Cavallini.

“We knew going into it, it was going to be a fight, so it was more so the mental preparation more than a tactical thing, that everyone was ready for the fight and ready to go and give it their all and even more,” Cornelius recalled. “The stadium was electric. The fans got behind us and pushed us over the line when we were stuck at nil-nil.”

Cornelius, who started playing soccer at age four in an Ajax house league, appears now to be a staple on the men’s national team, having played the entirety of 10 of Canada’s 11 matches since making his debut just over a year ago — and the final 29 minutes of the other to help preserve a 1-0 win over Cuba.

But, he’s taking nothing for granted in a country he says is now producing a lot of talent.

“It’s never good to get too comfortable,” he said. “We have a lot of good players, a lot of quality in this country that I don’t think a lot of people see or respect yet, so everyone on the team has to be on their toes and continue to push to get better individually because if not, then people are going to pass you.”

Canada’s road to the World Cup is long and somewhat complicated, but another win or even a draw against the U.S. would likely keep them where they need to be for now — among the top six ranked teams in the American and Caribbean confederation. The top six after next June’s international matches advance to the Hexagonal, or Hex for short, the final round of World Cup qualifying for the region.

“We know it’s going to be a long journey, but we can only do it step by step,” Cornelius explained. “It’s going to take a few years to qualify either way, so we can only go game by game and keep focused on getting better. I think the team we have has a lot of quality and I don’t think there’s any reason we shouldn’t be pushing for a spot in the World Cup.”