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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
Following two straight home defeats, the Portland Timbers have dropped below the Western Conference playoff line with just four games remaining in the MLS regular season — making Sunday's match at Providence Park against Minnesota United something close to a must-win (3 p.m., TV on ESPN).

The Opponent

When the Timbers traveled to Minnesota for two games at the beginning of August, everything was going right. They'd just thrashed the LA Galaxy 4-0 at home, Brian Fernandez was tearing up the league, and the club's ascent up the Western Conference table seemed inevitable.

But the Timbers lost both of those games in Minnesota, 1-0 and 2-1, and have struggled since — going just 4-4-0 in the eight matches they've played, all at home, since.

The Loons are in better shape. After beating Real Salt Lake 3-1 at Allianz Field last weekend, Adrian Heath's team is sitting in third place in the West. They're not only on the cusp of their first ever playoff appearance, they're on the cusp of hosting their first ever playoff game.

It's an exciting time for a franchise that enjoyed very little success in their first two seasons in the top flight. New signings Vito Mannone, Ike Opara, and Osvaldo Alonso have done wonders for the defense, and between Mason Toye and Darwin Quintero, they've mostly had enough going forward as well.

As the Timbers learned in St. Paul a month-and-a-half ago, this is a strong team. They're going to be a tough out.

The Tactics

Though the Loons are well positioned at this point, they have a very difficult schedule to end the season: tomorrow's game in Portland, then home matches against Sporting Kansas City and LAFC, before finishing up on Decision Day in Seattle.

This match, then, against a reeling Timbers side, presents a real opportunity. Minnesota is well-equipped to play at Providence Park: they're comfortable sitting back and making the game difficult in midfield, but also have the speed, largely through Toye up top, to break forward.

Transition is where the Loons beat RSL last weekend, and they'll likely look to do the same thing on Sunday. If they're able to win the battle in midfield like they did in the games in Minnesota, they'll be in position to get a result.

The Timbers, meanwhile, need some life. They looked both tired and frustrated in their 2-0 loss to New York on Wednesday night, getting thoroughly outplayed by the Red Bulls' B-team and looking slow in every phase of the game.

Part of that might be simple fatigue. Part of it, no doubt, is that the team's attack has been in a funk for more than a month. Giovani Savarese changed the positioning of his forwards on Wednesday night, but the move backfired as Brian Fernandez was quiet and Jeremy Ebobisse missed the team's best chance to grab a point.

What happens this weekend? Savarese should get Sebastian Blanco back for 90 minutes. Outside of that, he needs his players to dig in and pull themselves off the mat.

Robert Sibiga will referee on what is supposed to be another rainy day in the Northwest.

The Lineup

12 - Clark
16 - Valentin
5 - Dielna
25 - Tuiloma
2 - Moreira
40 - Zambrano
21 - Chara
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri (C)
7 - Fernandez
17 - Ebobisse

— Cristhian Paredes is listed as questionable with a leg injury, so Renzo Zambrano may be in line for his first start in more than a month.

— Blanco came off the bench against the Red Bulls in his first appearance since the Real Salt Lake game, and he should return to the starting lineup in this one.

— Larrys Mabiala is progressing, and may make his return as well to replace either Claude Dielna or Bill Tuiloma at center back.

— Given the schedule congestion, the likes of Diego Chará and Diego Valeri are due for a day off — but it's more likely that they'll get it on Wednesday night against New England than on Sunday.

The Memory

Support The Portland Mercury

The Timbers are a perfect 2-0 against Minnesota United at home in MLS play, but last year's game wasn't without its share of drama.

The Pick

Minnesota is riding high at the moment, and the Timbers very much aren't. This one finishes 1-1.