Anton Tinnerholm: “We did a great regular season last season, but when it mattered the most, we weren’t really there.” (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

New York City FC players have revenge on their minds.

After capturing the Eastern Conference regular season crown last year, City was embarrassed by underdog Toronto FC in the quarterfinal of the MLS Cup Playoffs, dropping a 2-1 home decision at Citi Field.

It certainly was a tough defeat to take, considering NYCFC woefully underperformed when it has to raise its game.

Add on a 1-0 away loss in Toronto on March 7 earlier this year, and NYCFC players feel they are doubly motivated to return the favor to the Reds in the MLS Is Back Round of 16 match at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla. Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

“Revenge is the right word here,” right back Anton Tinnerholm said during a media conference call Friday. “When we started the preseason, we still kind of forget about the game.”

He was talking about the elimination match.

“We did a great regular season last season, but when it mattered the most, we weren’t really there,” Tinnerholm said. “Of course, we want to take some revenge from last year. We all know that Toronto is a good team, that they have experience. That is a team that is hard to beat. We have to step it up a little bit, especially if we compare it to the playoff game when we weren’t ready, especially in the first half.”

To accomplish that, NYCFC will have to raise its game coming out of the starting game. In its two losses in Orlando, it was sluggish early on. In a knockout round game, no team can afford to do that.

“We all have responsibility here,” Tinnerholm said. “If you look at these three games, of course we can do better attacking-wise. Most of the time, maybe not the first 20, 25 [minutes] against Orlando but the other minutes of the tournament we have been the better team, but we haven’t scored as much. Of course, we can do it better attacking wise and we work on it every single training.”

On the other side of the ball, Tinnerholm felt the backline and team defense has done everything that has been asked of it.

“I think the defense so far is looking really good, especially against Miami the last game,” he said of the 1-0 win Monday. “They didn’t give any chances at all. We’re taking it step by step. … It’s time to step up straight away. We all have a responsibility on Sunday. We’ve got nothing to lose. We got a free ticket here. Now it’s time to just go out there and push.”

No doubt that NYCFC got a free ride into the knockout round. Out of the four third-place wildcard teams, City was ranked fourth after finishing the group stage with a sub-par 1-2 mark.

Toronto, which has reached the MLS Cup final three of the past four years and captured the league championship in 2017, is considered the favorites.

In fact, NYCFC carries a four-game winless streak (0-3-1) against Toronto FC into the match. It has been almost two years since New York recorded a victory, in a 3-2 away result on Aug. 12, 2018.

“For me, it doesn’t really matter who’s under pressure here,” Tinnerholm said. “We want to win. On a club like NYCFC you always want to win. … I don’t really care who is the favorite out here. I agree that we got this spot with 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 the win.”

Tinnerholm and his teammates watched the LA Galaxy’s dramatic 1-1 draw with the Houston Dynamo from the training room Thursday. The game went down to death’s door as LA converted a penalty kick in the 90th minute to send Houston home and NYCFC into the knockout round.

“It was a rollercoaster,” he said with a chuckle. “Houston could have be 2-0, 3-up in the first half. In the second half it was back and forth all the time. We all felt it’s going to be a PK in the situaton before that with a hand ball, but it wasn’t. Then they got a PK after that instead. The last minutes, it was so much MLS the 10 minutes. It was going back and forth all the time and it could be 2-1 to either of the teams. It was some crazy minutes over there. It was really fun to watch, to be honest.”

Now, NYCFC has a second lease on life to make an impact in the tournament. Its 1-2 record will count in the standings but any results in the knockout won’t.

Tinnerholm admitted that after the team’s second consecutive loss in the competition that “no one on the team really believed that we were going to get through.”

“After the second game, we had a big talk and we found out we still had a chance,” he said. “So, we talked before the last one on what we’re going to do. We said we’re going to have to focus on the three points, especially now because it counts in the regular season. We really wanted the three points. Then it’s more like a bonus that we’re going to get through. We got the three points and then we had to wait and see. There were some crazy games after that. We’re happy to be here and now we have the opportunity to do something bigger.”