Have the Toronto FC team we all expected finally arrived?

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It has taken almost five months, but Toronto FC have finally turned up.

They recorded back to back wins for the first-time since July 14, 2012 this weekend with a 1-0 win over New England building on last weekends 2-1 victory over Columbus.

That’s right, it has been almost a year since Toronto had consecutive wins in league play. That’s how bad its been.

You have to respect TFC’s fans for keeping the faith after what has been a mostly torrid 12 months. But now Ryan Nelsen’s new look side may have turned the corner. Just maybe.

Toronto won three on the spin last July, before their terrible slump continued for the rest of the 2012 season. That was a brief mirage in a desert of discontent for Toronto’s fans.

However this time, things are different.

Bringing in Nelsen as a rookie manager so close to the start of the season, Toronto were always going to struggle in the first half of the 2013 campaign. Perhaps they’ve done worse than many thought, but Nelsen’s side are getting their act together. Fast.

Personally I expected them to be a hard team to beat this season. And for the most part that’s been true. Look at how many games they’ve either lost or drawn after giving up last minute goals. They were close to winning plenty of games — I don’t need to remind TFC fans that — because the fighting spirit is there, just not the luck. But Nelsen’s a fighter and his team now mirrors his staunch defensive attitude.

(MORE: Toronto FC’s roster improving, but is it enough?)

In 20 games Toronto has only allowed more than two goals on two occasions, and that was in back-to-back matches in July when a 3-3 tie with Montreal was followed by a 3-0 spanking by Sporting KC. They have the ninth best defense in MLS and have conceded 29 goals so far.

One of the main reasons for the mini revival: that nasty streak is back. Matias Laba, whose first goal since joining TFC was the game-winner on Sunday vs. New England, has made a huge difference in midfield. His bite in the tackle and range of passing is exactly what Nelsen needed. And the old head of Steven Caldwell in central defense has proved a masterful addition, which has brought out the best in the clubs young defenders who lineup next to the 32-year-old Scotsman.

I expected Toronto to be a hard-nosed defensive team, that doesn’t give up many goals and doesn’t thrill the neutral. Ryan Nelsen’s men are delivering that, finally. And now that they seem to have their house in order, can they possibly sneak into the playoff spots in the East? They’re 13 points off fifth-placed Houston. That’s a huge ask. But with this new-found mettle and habit of not losing games or giving up goals, Toronto will certainly be a much different team in the second half of the season.

The Toronto team I expected has finally arrived. Welcome.

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina squad

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

AP Photo / Ricardo Mazalan
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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

WATCH: Caballero blunder punished as Rebic rip puts Argentina on ropes

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
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Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.

His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.

The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.

It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.