PORTLAND – As many top-end players as New York City FC can call upon, they arguably wouldn’t have reached MLS Cup 2021 without their backup left back.
Iceland international Gudmundur Thórarinsson has become a super-sub of sorts for the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed, stepping up during pressure-filled Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs moments.
It’s a sharp contrast to the 2020 campaign, when Thórarinsson’s penalty kick at Orlando City SC was saved by center back-turned-emergency-goalkeeper Rodrigo Schlegel, sealing another painful postseason exit.
“I've seen the worst and now the best of the playoffs,” Thórarinsson said ahead of Saturday's final at Providence Park, home of the Portland Timbers (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMas, TUDN).
The crescendo started in NYCFC’s Eastern Conference Semifinal win at record-setting Supporters’ Shield winners New England Revolution, serving in an extra-time cross that Taty Castellanos headed home in the 2-2 draw that saw the visitors advance on penalty kicks. Then in last weekend’s Eastern Conference Final at the shorthanded Philadelphia Union, Thórarinsson served up Talles Magno’s late winner that sealed a 2-1 win.
In both instances, Thórarinsson entered as a second-half substitute for former Denmark youth international Malte Amundsen. He’d love to start, of course, but depth has given head coach Ronny Deila some selection debates.
“We're bonding really well in the changing room and of course I just want to do the best for the team, either way if I'm starting or coming on,” said the 29-year-old. “Thankfully I've managed to help the team so far and now we'll just have to see what the coach will do for the final, but I want to play.
“Then again, I think we showed through the season that we come through difficult times together and that's only possible if you have a good squad, a good team. So the main focus is just on winning the final.”
NYCFC are eight games unbeaten, with Thórarinsson again serving as the spark. This run started with a 1-1 draw at Atlanta United on Oct. 20, ending a four-plus-game shutout streak for the Cityzens that was sending their playoff hopes into serious jeopardy.
Then Thórarinsson curled home a left-footed free kick in the 90th minute, salvaging a valuable road point against the team they’d eventually beat 2-0 in Round One at Yankee Stadium. The late-season table climb had begun.
“I don't think I really realized at that time how big of a goal it was,” Thórarinsson said.
Now, Thórarinsson could again be a game-changing sub in MLS Cup as NYCFC seek their first-ever trophy. And after experiencing highs and lows upon leaving behind Scandinavia’s top divisions for MLS – chief among them, the COVID-19 pandemic that threw a wrench into his Big Apple acclimatization – he’s hoping to spoil the Timbers’ party.
“Last year I came late during the preseason, I got injured my first training in New York,” Thórarinsson said. “Then obviously the pandemic hits so it was a really, really difficult year mentally and physically as well to get in top shape.
“But this season, I was so determined to come back and do better, especially with that penalty miss against Orlando in the playoffs. It was just many, many points for me that I was so determined to do better at. If I can be personal here, I think it has worked out pretty well this season. It would be such an amazing feeling to take home the MLS Cup.”