To say that 2012 was something of a rollercoaster ride for Canadian soccer fans would certainly be a gross understatement.
Both the men’s and women’s national team programs endured their struggles and showed plenty of signs of progress, while the Canadian Soccer Association marked 100 years of soccer in Canada with a number of historic initiatives.
Ultimately, 2012 was a year in which the women’s side raised the bar in terms of what will define success for Canada going forward. After finishing last at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, the women bounced back amid adversity with a run of genuinely impressive and inspiring performances in 2012.
No matches were more thrilling or more impressive than Canada’s final two encounters at the Olympics in London. While Canada lost a heartbreaker in the semifinals to the United States, the result did little to take away from the monumental performance that the Canadians delivered against the top team in the world. The match was a genuine thriller that was a fantastic advertisement for both women’s soccer and the quality of the Canadian women’s team, and it engendered the type of rabid Canadian fan support that has historically been the domain of national hockey teams.
While the U.S. would ultimately go on to defeat Japan to win the gold medal, Canada earned a bronze medal thanks to a dramatic goal scored by Diana Matheson against the same France squad that had soundly beaten the Reds in the World Cup the year prior.
Not surprisingly, Canada’s MVP over the course of the year was Christine Sinclair. Already established as one of the best players in the world, Sinclair actually increased her level of performance in 2012 and clearly set herself apart by a wide margin as the best player that Canada has ever produced.
Other names – including coach John Herdman, Diana Matheson, Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott, Melissa Tancredi, just to mention a few – deserve their fair share of the credit for the heights that the women’s team scaled in 2012. That said, make no mistake, Sinclair was once again the player that defined Canadian soccer over the course of the year. Simply put, she is a very special player and she deserves to be mentioned alongside names such as Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr in terms of being one of the greatest Canadian athletes of all time.
Sinclair almost singlehandedly raised the profile of the game in Canada and, after having justly earned plaudits for years in Canadian soccer circles, was named winner of the 2012 Lou Marsh Memorial Trophy, an honour awarded annually to the Canadian Athlete of the Year as chosen by a panel of sports journalists from across the country. Not surprisingly, she became the first Canadian soccer player to win the prestigious award.
With the CSA now preparing to host the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, it doesn’t need to be stated that the timing of Sinclair’s heroics was as impeccable as you would expect from a player whose movement and timing on the pitch is nothing short of remarkable.
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Over on the men’s side of the equation, it was very much a case of “so close, but so far away” for the Canadian teams that competed in both World Cup and Olympic qualifying.
With respect to Canada’s most recent attempt to qualify for the World Cup, the 2012 iteration of the men’s squad came within a point of qualifying for the final round of World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region. Under former coach Stephen Hart, Canada was a team that generally played excellent team defence, battled hard and moved the ball well on the ground, but they were also a squad that struggled to convert chances in the final third. And Canada was penalized for its lack of killer instinct in a 0-0 draw at home against Honduras in June, which in hindsight now looks like it was the result that really killed the team’s chances of moving on to the final round of World Cup qualifying.
Ultimately, whether it is fair or unfair, the 2012 edition of the men’s team will be defined by the its embarrassing 8-1 loss in Honduras. Realistically, it would have been disappointing had Canada lost 2-0 in a difficult away fixture in a hostile atmosphere, but it still would have allowed many to point to the overall progress that Canada would have showed within the context of recent World Cup qualifying campaigns. Instead, the manner in which a dispirited Canadian squad was so thoroughly dismantled left the majority of Canadian soccer fans with a distinctly bitter taste in their mouths and cast a shadow over the team’s entire World Cup qualifying campaign.
While Canada’s World Cup journey ended in a disappointing fashion, it also marked the end of the line for a number of the players, with key performers such as Dwayne De Rosario, Julian de Guzman, Patrice Bernier and Kevin McKenna not expected to be participants when Canada battles for a spot at the 2018 World Cup.
With that in mind, attention has now shifted somewhat to the next generation of Canadians. In that vein, fans were able to get a considerable look at many of Canada’s most lauded up-and-coming players during the U-23 Olympic qualifying tournament in March. Like the senior side, the U-23’s fell just short of qualifying for the London Olympics, the performances of players such as Samuel Piette, Michal Misiewicz, and Doneil Henry were quite impressive and provided a modicum of hope for the future.
On the positive side, the spirit and assuredness of a U-23 team that had not had a lot of advance preparation culminated in an inspiring and impressive 2-0 win over the highly-favoured U.S. in group stage play. In terms of negatives, Canada suffered a letdown in drawing 1-1 in their final group match against Cuba, a result that ultimately meant Canada had to play against Mexico rather than Honduras in the semifinal match that decided their Olympic destiny. The Canadians then ended up delivering a valiant effort while being outclassed by the Mexicans in a 3-1 loss that ended their Olympic dream.
Looking back, 2012 was an exciting year in Canadian soccer that had both its high points and low points. The performance of the women’s team at the London Olympics was the defining story of the year in Canadian soccer and Sinclair was the well-deserved poster girl for Canada’s impressive success at the international level.
Looking ahead, it will now be incumbent on the CSA to find a balance between building on the momentum the women’s team has created ahead of the 2015 World Cup in Canada and continuing to put significant resources into the men’s program at both the senior and youth team levels.
With respect to the latter, it is positive to note that training camps and international friendlies for Canada’s U-17 and U-20 men’s teams have been numerous and consistent, and that the senior side already has two friendly matches against the United States and Denmark in January.
The next big decision on the agenda for the CSA will be around the hiring of a new coach for the men’s team. Fans can only hope that the next manager has the same positive effect that John Herdman has had since he took over at the helm of the women’s side in 2011.
Steve Bottjer is a Toronto-based writer, podcaster and editor for RedNation Online, on online magazine covering all aspects of Canadian soccer. Follow RedNation Online on Twitter.