Gudmundur Thorarinsson : “I’ve only seen the worst and now the best of the playoffs.” (Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

PORTLAND – The odds of a reserve left fullback becoming a hero in back-to-back MLS Cup Playoff matches must be astronomical.

After all, outside backs, let alone substitutes in that position, don’t set up vital late goals in regular season matches, let alone in playoff encounters, every day of the week.

It is quite a rare feat throughout the soccer universe.

Yet, New York City FC defender Gudmundur Thorarinsson has become one of the most influential players of the postseason as New York City FC takes on the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup on Saturday (3 p.m. ET).

The Icelandic international has come off the bench twice after halftime to help City record its two most important victories in the franchise’s seven-year history.

Thorarinsson twice replaced Malte Amundsen and worked wonders, setting up goals with 11th-hour crosses in the Eastern Conference that boosted NYCFC into MLS Cup.

Like any player worth his or her salt, Thorarinsson wants to start and play as long as he can.

“Of course, you want to play from the start but I think we have a good team,” he said. “We’re bonding really well in the changing room. I just want to do the best for the team, either way if I’m starting or coming on. Thankfully, I’ve managed to help the team so far. Now, we’ll just have to see what the coach will do for the finals.

“We’ve showed through the season that we’ve come through difficult times together and that’s only possible if you have a good squad and good team. The main focus is just on winning the final.”

To truly appreciate what Thorarinsson has accomplished during the playoffs, we must be reminded that he finished with two goals and two assists in 24 appearances. One of those goals was a 90th-minute free kick that lifted City into a 1-1 draw with Atlanta United on Oct. 20, a result that snapped a four-game team goalless streak.

“I don’t think I really realized at that time how big of a goal it was,” he said.

On Nov. 30, Thorarinsson made his first postseason impact after coming on in the 101st minute at the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference semifinal. Eight minutes later on an overlapping run, he sent a left-wing cross to Taty Castellanos, who scored to give NYCFC a 2-1 lead. The visitors wound up winning via penalty kicks.

A half hour after replacing Amundsen in the conference final at the Philadelphia Union, Thorarinsson was at it again, this time crossing from the left flank to Talles Magno, who connected for the game-winner in the 88th minute in a 2-1 victory.

It should be noted that Thorarinsson has also lived the lowest of lows in the playoffs as well, missing the Cityzens’ final attempt in their wild and crazy shootout elimination by Orlando City SC last season.

“Well, I obviously had a terrible experience of the playoffs last year,” he said. “I’ve only seen the worst and now the best of the playoffs. I understand how fun it is to be involved in the playoffs because every game is a final.”

Last year wasn’t one of the 29-year-old defender’s most memorable season. Thorarinsson joined the team late in the preseason before he injured himself in his first training. And then came the pandemic.

“So it was a really, really difficult year mentally and physically as well to get in top shape,” he said. “For this season, I was so determined to come back and do better, especially with penalty miss. I was so determined to do better. I think it has worked out pretty well this season. It would just be such an amazing feeling to take home the MLS Cup.”

Thorarinsson knows that feeling already as he was a member of the 2016 Norwegian Cup winning side with Rosenborg.

He also played in the Swedish Cup final.

The MLS Cup, however, is a different animal altogether.

“This is probably different because this is for the whole thing,” he said. “This is not a cup competition. This is just like for the league title. It makes it bigger in that sense that this is the whole season [that] is basically under one game if you’ve got to be the champion on off. That’s something that I’m not used to obviously, but I’ve been able to see the good side of it now. We’ve obviously celebrated like crazy after every win in the playoffs because it’s like a final every game. I would say it’s a little bit bigger here because it’s the league title at stage. We’re just excited and hopefully we can win.”

Whether Thorarinsson can pull off some more late-match heroics, we’ll just have to wait until then.