Vancouver Whitecaps defender Derek Cornelius vividly remembers the last time he prepared to take on the Colorado Rapids.
It was mid-March 2020 and he was driving to training with some teammates when news came that the game had been called off.
“I think we just got the update that the NBA decided to cancel because a couple players contracted COVID or whatever," Cornelius said. "And then it was one after another — then it was MLS, then it was NHL. And it was like ‘What’s going on here? How long is this going to be? Is it going to be a one week, two week thing?’ And now we’re still in this pandemic.”
Thirteen months later, the 'Caps (1-0-1) are once again looking to host the Rapids (0-1-1) on Sunday, albeit in a very different venue.
Border closures have forced all three Canadian Major League Soccer squads to temporarily relocate to start the season. The Whitecaps left Vancouver's B.C. Place and set up shop in Sandy, Utah, home to Real Salt Lake.
“You just have to adapt and make the best of whatever cards you’ve been dealt. And I think the team and the staff have done a great job of that. Because we’re all suffering," Cornelius said. "There’s a lot of us away from friends, families back at home. And we’re just doing it with a smile on our faces and the same work ethic every day.”
It's been a strong start to the season for Vancouver. The 'Caps opened the campaign with a 1-0 victory over the Portland Timbers and settled last week for a 2-2 draw with Toronto FC.
Colorado suffered a 3-1 defeat at the hands of expansion club Austin FC last week and heads into the matchup with the Whitecaps searching for its first win of the year.
The Rapids could get some key pieces back this week, however. Defenders Lalas Abubakar and Sam Vines are both listed as questionable for Sunday's game after missing the first two outings of the season with undisclosed injuries.
Coach Marc Dos Santos said the Whitecaps have done their homework on Colorado, a team they haven't played since June 2019.
“We’re looking a lot at the details of their team. We’re watching them the same way they’re watching us," he said.
Dos Santos expects set pieces to be a big piece of the game for both sides.
“Colorado is an experienced team, Colorado is a team that did well in the games they played last season and made the playoffs," he said. "They were already dangerous on set pieces last season so they’re continuing in those moments. Colorado is a team that in transition is very dangerous with the players that they have.”
All three of Vancouver’s goals this season have come off of set pieces. Striker Lucas Cavallini headed in a free kick against Portland, while Cristian Dajome capitalized on a penalty kick against Toronto and Andy Rose later added a header on a free kick.
Set pieces have been a focal point in training since pre-season camp began, said Cornelius, who came off the bench to make his season debut last week after suffering a knee sprain while playing with the Canadian national team.
“The coaching staff, they told us they wanted us to be a team that’s superior in set pieces in terms of both defending and attacking," he said. "So there’s been a lot of emphasis on just the mental concentration, the quality of delivery, the willingness to, you know, put your head in where it might hurt.”
Much work has been done preparing for a game more than a year in the making, and Dos Santos expects a battle on the field.
"It’s going to be again, like every game we see on our schedule, every game’s going to be difficult and this is another one," the coach said.
COLORADO RAPIDS (0-1-1) AT VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (1-0-1)
Sunday, Rio Tinto Stadium
HELPING OUT: Vancouver defender Cristian Gutierrez registered an assist on the Whitecaps' second goal against Toronto. He also helped out on the lone goal in Vancouver's season opener. The 24 year old now has four assists in his MLS career.
INJURY UPDATE: Vancouver forward Tosaint Ricketts (left hamstring strain) and defender Erik Godoy (right calf strain) returned to team training this week.
OLD FRIEND: The 'Caps are likely to see a familiar face on the pitch Sunday. Nicolas Mezquida spent four seasons with Vancouver before he was dealt to Colorado in the 2018 off-season. The 29-year-old midfielder has been solid for the Rapids, putting up five goals and seven assists in 50 appearances.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press