The Portland Timbers earned the right to host their first match of the MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday, but it will be a short postseason stay unless they can defeat a Minnesota United side that won both regular season meetings.
Fifth-seeded Minnesota (13-11-10, 49 points) took each game by a single goal, 1-0 in Portland in June and 2-1 in Minnesota in July.
The No. 4 seed Timbers (17-13-4, 55 points) were ravaged by injuries at the time.
Since then, 2020 MLS is Back Tournament MVP Sebastian Blanco is back in form following an ACL tear in September of that year. And the Timbers have won eight of 14 since he returned to the starting lineup, including three in a row to close the regular season.
Forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda also has three starts -- and three goals -- under his belt since recovering from the same injury in November 2020.
As a whole, the No. 4 seed Timbers go into the playoffs looking to make amends for some early season struggles they believe weren't representative of their overall talent.
"Minnesota is a very good team, against whom we had some trouble playing in the past," defender Larrys Mabiala said. "And we are looking forward to (correcting) all of that, and (getting) a win."
The visitors have a similar story, climbing into the fifth seed in the West despite beginning the season on a four-match losing streak.
And like Portland, Minnesota came into 2021 expecting big things after coming within a goal of reaching the MLS Cup final in 2020.
But both previous wins over the Timbers came during a 13-match run where the Loons lost only once.
The form has been spottier recently, and Minnesota is one of three playoff qualifiers without a double-digit goal scorer (Robin Lod finished with nine).
There's still a sense within this group that there is room for improvement.
"It feels good when you say it like that with the 0-4 start, but at the same time it's like a double-edged sword," defender Chase Gasper said of making the playoffs. "We know how much potential (there) is in this group and the quality of players that we have, so do we feel like maybe we should've done better? Maybe."
--Field Level Media