From Euro 2012 to the London Olympics and a new Canadian team in Major League Soccer, it's been a year filled with some great soccer stories. For my final blog of the year, I pick my top five highlights of 2012:
5. Soccer on Parliament Hill
The first of my highlights didn't even involve a soccer pitch. I had the opportunity to visit Ottawa for the first time in early May as FIFA announced the host cities for the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada. It was great to see the nation's capital, but also to look around the House of Commons which was the venue for the press conference. That day, it really hit home that Canada has a massive opportunity ahead when the country welcomes the world in 2015. It will be a wonderful time for the game in this country and for the six cities that will host matches, Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter was in Ottawa for the announcement and I had the chance to interview him for SportsCentre. He has lofty goals for the outcome of the 2015 women's tournament and went as far as to say that it should be a stepping stone towards the country launching a professional women's league. "This is a wonderful opportunity for Canada," said Blatter. "It is a chance for the whole country to present to the World a rendez-vous of the best of the best in women's football. It is not only good for football but for the whole population."
Blatter stated that the impact of hosting the Women's World Cup could leave a bigger legacy than the Olympics. He pointed to the fact that the tournament doesn't just centre around one area of the country, instead spreading from coast to coast with venues stretching from Moncton to Vancouver, thereby touching more people on an individual basis.
4. A Sea of Blue
Major League Soccer welcomed its third Canadian team in 2012 as Montreal Impact joined Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps. After having the honour of being in the broadcast booth for the Impact's inaugural match in the league at BC Place in early March it was great to be able to call their first MLS goal a week later when Davy Arnaud headed in against Chicago at Olympic Stadium.
It was a milestone day for Canadian soccer as almost 60,000 packed into the Big O to welcome Major League Soccer to the city, and although the crowd didn't get to see the home side win, the match was about the occasion rather than the result.
After starting in a more central role in the first two games, Sanna Nyassi was moved to the wing midway through the Impact's home opener, and that provided the Gambian with more space in which to utilize his best asset – his pace. It also allowed Davy Arnaud to move into a more advanced central position and those two changes led to Montreal's first-ever Major League Soccer goal, when Arnaud headed in Nyassi's cross.
Unfortunately, the Impact weren't able to hold onto the lead and had to settle for a point but despite conceding a levelling goal, the afternoon was a big success for Montreal. Witnessed by a record crowd for a soccer match in the city, they showed improvement from a week earlier, found the net in MLS for the first time and earned the club's first point.
3. Spain Stands Alone
Hosting Euro 2012 on TSN was a lot of fun but it was made even more enjoyable by the high quality, entertaining matches. Spain were worthy Champions and their coach Vicente Del Bosque also goes down in history becoming the only manager to win the World Cup, European Championship and UEFA Champions League. The success at Euro 2012 was a fantastic achievement for him and his team.
There's little doubt Spain saved their best until last. It was incredible to witness the performance they produced in the final to beat Italy 4-0. When it really mattered, the best team on the planet stepped up a gear.
To be able to produce such a complete performance with the pressure on in the final of a major tournament was extremely impressive and highlights the true ability of this team. In full stride, they are wonderful to watch and they thoroughly deserved to become the first team to win back-to-back European Championships. At the moment, no-one else comes close. There's little doubt they are the best team of our generation.
2. Playoff Bound
What a difference 12 months makes! After finishing at the bottom of the pile in MLS in their inaugural season in the league, Vancouver Whitecaps qualified for the playoffs in 2012. By doing so, they created soccer history in this country by becoming Canada's first MLS team to make it into the postseason.
Having called Whitecaps games through the season and followed their transformation closely under head coach Martin Rennie, it was great to have the opportunity to cover them in the playoffs, even though they didn't manage to make it past their knockout round match against LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center.
Vancouver's success in 2012 was tempered by the way in which the 'Caps stumbled towards the end of the year and major mid-season changes to personnel drew plenty of criticism from fans. They limped over the finish line, but the only thing that should really matter is that they managed to cross it. This is a team that finished last in MLS just 12 months earlier – this year they qualified for the post-season with a game to spare. That is a major achievement.
Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie deserves massive praise for what he managed to achieve in his first season in MLS. I'm sure Rennie would acknowledge that along the way he has made some mistakes this year - but that's to be expected with a rookie MLS head coach. Rennie has been charged with laying the foundation for long-term success but also managed to deliver on the 'Caps number one pre-season priority of qualifying for the playoffs.
1. Olympic Bronze
My highlight of 2012, by a long way, was the opportunity to call matches played by Canada's Women's National Team at the London Olympics, including the victory over France to win the bronze medal. It was fantastic to see how the performance from the team throughout the Olympics brought the nation together and having the honour to call that moment in Canadian soccer history was such a privilege and one of the most special moments in my broadcasting career.
The country got swept up in soccer fever because of the spirited way in which those players represented our nation and there was a great sense of pride in what they managed to achieve. It was an amazing story after the controversial, heartbreaking way they lost to the United States a few days earlier and the players deserve immense credit for the way they responded.
Of course, the match that still sticks out above all others was the heartbreaking semifinal defeat to the United States. It was a match for the ages. A brave, spirited performance from underdogs, denied a famous win in controversial circumstances at one of world soccer's most iconic venues. It was one of the most enthralling games you are ever likely to see. A 4-3 defeat to the number one ranked team in the world is certainly no disgrace, but the manner in which the game was lost left the Canadians feeling cheated.
Unfortunately, at the time, all the talk about the referee's decisions overshadowed an incredible individual display from Christine Sinclair. We shouldn't be surprised. Sinclair is world class and proved it once again during the summer. She is one of the greatest soccer players the women's game has ever seen. She is the ultimate professional and a total team player. It was great to see her receive so many accolades and awards following her performances at the Olympics.
Canada coach John Herdman deserves massive credit for the way he got the team playing in the space of a year. He managed to change the mindset of this Canadian team. After finishing the Women's World Cup last year in last place and without a win, Herdman inherited a despondent bunch of players. In a 12 month period he worked just as much on improving the mental aptitude of his squad as any other aspect of their game.
A bronze medal was a big success for this team. Now full focus is being placed on building towards Women's World Cup in 2015 to ensure that Canada is able to perform well on home soil.