PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Timbers players and coaches have heard it so many times now, the refrain is probably lodged in their brains like a bad pop song from the 1980s.
Yes, Friday's home finale against the Houston Dynamo (10:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online) is a must-win. Just like their Oct. 2 game in Vancouver was a must-win. And the game before that. And so on.
"We know the importance of it," Timbers defender Eric Brunner said. "I think we all realize that."
The Timbers are three points behind both Houston and New York for the 10th and final playoff spot. And with three games left, the Cascadia side will have to eclipse both teams in the points race to overcome a tiebreaker scenario that would end their first MLS season just short of the playoffs.
Yet Portland have an ace up their sleeve: They have a game in hand over both Houston and New York.
"We like playing at home, but Houston is playing for a playoff spot just like us so it's going to be a big game," Brunner said.
Portland last played Houston on a sweltering Aug. 14 night at Robertson Stadium and lost 2-1. Brunner said a lot has changed — for both teams — since then. The Timbers' back line has fully gelled after former Dynamo players Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer were traded to Portland in late July, while Houston added Honduran national team forward Carlo Costly and Brazilian midfielder Luiz Camargo in August loan deals.
Since losses to Houston and Kansas City on the tail end of a three-game August road trip, Portland have only tasted defeat once in their last seven games. And at home, the Timbers haven't lost since July 10 against Seattle.
Houston are also riding high thanks to a four-game unbeaten streak after two straight defeats to Vancouver and Kansas City in late August and early September.
"They've had their struggles and we've had our struggles," Brunner said. "It's just a matter of finding your feet at the right time, and I think we're starting to do that. I think the second half of the season is definitely better than the first half. Yeah we had the first five games at home that we won, but I think we were kind of inconsistent in our play. And I think we're starting to understand what it takes to keep a consistent performance on the field."
Brunner pointed to the fact that the Timbers have been especially dangerous early in matches at home. Portland scored goals in the ninth minute against both San Jose on Sept. 21 and New England on Sept. 16, and against rivals Vancouver on Aug. 20, Diego Chara put the Timbers up in just the second minute.
"I can tell the difference from the first game here to the last few games we played here," Brunner said. "I mean, we come out really hard in the first 15 minutes, and it's tough to contain us."
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org