Minnesota United enters Monday's Western Conference final at Seattle with two fewer days to rest and prepare than the opponent, all in the name of growing its league.
MLS executives moved Wednesday's Western semifinal at Sporting Kansas City from Wednesday to Thursday and the final from Sunday to Monday night to grab Fox national programming opened when the NFL postponed "Thursday Night Football" that night.
The Loons boarded a chartered flight home late Thursday night, regenerated on Friday and flew to Seattle on Sunday while the Sounders have been home since they beat FC Dallas on Tuesday.
Monday's winner plays Saturday at Columbus — the Crew was a 1-0 winner over New England in Sunday's Eastern Conference final — in the MLS Cup final.
Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer won't call the scheduling an advantage for his reigning MLS Cup champions, or a disadvantage for Loons coach Adrian Heath's team.
"When you get to this stage of the playoffs, it's the mental side of your game," Schmetzer said. "Adrian has done a good job. They're a mentally strong team."
Schmetzer notes the Loons' 3-0 victory at Kansas City, in which they allowed three prime scoring opportunities in the first 25 minutes. Sporting KC didn't convert one while the Loons then went and scored three times in the 23 minutes before halftime.
"They could have gone down, taken a goal," Schmetzer said. "They didn't fold. They came back and said, 'Let's change gears here and see what we can do.' The mental aspect of playoff games in my humble opinion is where they are won and lost."
As mentally tough as his team might be, Heath didn't need one more obstacle to overcome in a pandemic season already unlike any other.
"Obviously, we'd prefer to have an extra two days," Heath said. "I think that goes without saying. But we have to get on with it. The players know what's at stake. It's probably the biggest game in the club's history, so we have an awful lot to play for. In a perfect world, I would have liked a couple extra days, for sure."
His Loons arrive unbeaten in 10 games at 6-0-4 and haven't lost since a Sept. 23 game at Columbus. Young goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair has recorded seven clean sheets in those 10 games, including the last three in the regular-season finale and two playoffs games by identical 3-0 scores.
It's a long way from the club's first two MLS seasons, when it allowed 70 and 71 goals starting in its inaugural season in 2017. A good way, too, from last season, when the Loons lost a first-round home playoff game 2-1 to L.A. Galaxy.
This time, they have reached the conference final for the first time in a season filled injuries and last-hour changes. They are led both by MLS veterans such as captain and former Sounders All-Star Ozzie Alonso, leading scorer Kevin Molino, Ethan Finlay and Michael Boxall and experienced internationals Robin Lod, Romain Metanire and Bakaye Dibassy.
"We're on a roll, aren't we?" Heath asked. "It seems like it has been the last few months since we got beat. The one thing I do know about football: There's nothing like winning — or not losing — games to give players confidence. We're very confident. We're going into a really difficult place to play, but we couldn't be in a better place mentally, I don't think."
The Sounders, meanwhile, are something of MLS' gold standard. They haven't missed the playoffs since they entered the league in 2009. They have reached the MLS Cup final three times in the past four seasons, winning it in 2016 and 2019.
"Our expectations and the bar we set is very high," Schmetzer said. "It's reality. We don't sugarcoat it. We don't beat around the bush. We say we want to win and be successful. The club just has a long history of being successful and I want to keep it going. Is there pressure because the pundits are saying now the Sounders are the favorites? Sure, there is. There's always pressure."
A former Sounders assistant coach, Schmetzer replaced legendary coach Sigi Schmid midway through the 2016 season and, as interim coach, won Seattle its first MLS Cup that year.
The two coaches have been friendly since shortly after Heath came to America to coach in 2008. Both men prefer a 4-2-3-1 formation, although they have talented players who execute it in different ways.
"We know what we have to do, going away from home again," Molino said. "We know at times we'll have to weather the storm, same as at Kansas City. But we have to start fast."
Three Sounders players made MLS' 2020 Best XI in a season when they finished second in the Western Conference with an 11-5-6 record. The Loons didn't place a player on it after they finished fourth with a 9-5-7 record.
Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro is relentless, energetic and a playmaker. Athletic forward Jordan Morris is one of five finalists for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award that will be presented Monday. Forward Raul Ruidiaz, with 12, led his team in goals for the third consecutive regular season.
"They've got a bit of everything," Heath said.
The Loons will roll with attacking midfielder Emanuel Reynoso creating behind "false" striker Lod up top and sizzling scorer Molino on the left wing. Reynoso assisted on all three goals in the two playoff games and Molino has scored twice in each of his past three games.
"Whether it's Reynoso or Nico or Lod or Raul or Jordan or Molino, the team that makes the most plays is going to win," Schmetzer said.