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Fortunate to be in knockout stage, NYCFC hopes to sieze opportunity for revenge against Toronto FC

New York City FC defender Anton Tinnerholm, left,

New York City FC defender Anton Tinnerholm, left, and defender Maxime Chanot (4) try to keep Inter Miami midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, center, from getting to the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer match, Monday, July 20, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. Credit: AP/John Raoux

New York City FC’s early results in the MLS is Back Tournament left the club as the third-place team in its group, forcing those invested in its fate in the competition to monitor relevant remaining preliminary matches. Several games would determine the five remaining third-place teams, four of which eventually joined the knockout round.

With the final spot third-place slot to be decided in a match between the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, NYCFC sat on the cut line, needing one of a few results to finish ahead of either team.

Among those anxiously awaiting the final whistle of LA-Houston late Thursday was a group of NYCFC players, watching together in a training room at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando and wondering if they were about to leave the bubble earlier than any expected upon arrival.

“Houston could’ve been two or three up in the first half, then in the second half it was back and forth all the time,” said NYCFC right back Anton Tinnerholm. “The last 10 minutes, it was so much MLS in that 10 minutes. Back and forth all the time, it could be 2-1 to either of the teams. Some crazy minutes over there and really fun to watch to be honest.”

Fun to watch for NYCFC at least, who kept their place in the MLS bubble for now. A late penalty by the Galaxy capped a 1-1 draw that sealed City’s fate for at least a few more days. The club faces Toronto FC in Sunday’s Round of 16 matchup at 8:30 p.m.

“Of course, everybody wanted to go through,” said NYCFC coach Ronny Deila. “It was two nights with a lot of waiting and a lot of emotion when the results weren’t going our way. But it was a fantastic feeling when we saw the Galaxy score, and after that the game was really open so we just hoped the ref blew his whistle so everything would be finished.”

After losses to the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City SC to open the stage, City held on for a 1-0 victory Monday against winless expansion side Inter Miami CF to gain the three points it needed to advance. Although NYCFC was close to elimination, Deila and his players believe their play justified a place in the next round.

“I think overall, we deserved to go through with the performances we had done,” Deila said. “We should have more than what we got in the games and now that we have the opportunity we have to grab it with both hands and really be ready for a good performance against Toronto.”

While pleased with the effort against Miami, Tinnerholm conceded they were fortunate to reach this phase.

“It was a little bit of a free ticket into the playoffs, we still have a chance, but in a big club like this we always go for a win,” Tinnerholm said. “It doesn’t really matter if we’re the favorite or not, we’re just going to go out there and win the next game.”

NYCFC winger Gary Mackay-Steven said the team needs to take advantage of its second chance.

“We were annoyed it was out of our hands before with results in the first three games,” said Mackay-Steven. “Now, we’re still in the tournament, it’s a big opportunity for us. It’s knockout games now, there’s no room for error.”

NYCFC and Toronto are plenty familiar with each other. In addition to TFC eliminating NYCFC from the MLS Cup conference semifinals last October, the teams met in one of only two matches each played before the sports world went dark in March. Toronto claimed victory once again.

With their tournament lives at stake and nothing else to lose in the knockout, that history won’t be far from the minds of NYCFC players.

“I think revenge is the right word here. When we started the preseason, we still hadn’t forgot about the playoffs,” Tinnerholm said. “We had a great regular season last season, but when it mattered the most, we weren’t really there. So, of course we want to take revenge from last year. We all know that Toronto is a good team, they have experience. It’s a team that is hard to beat, but we have to step it up a little bit, especially if you compare it to the playoff game where we weren’t ready.

“It’s always fun games against them, and hopefully we can take some revenge against them.”

NYCFC vs. Toronto FC

MLS is Back Tournament Round of 16

8:30 p.m. Sunday, July 26

Watch: Fox Sports 1

Listen: NYCFC.com/radio

New York Sports