Editorial (December 7, 2018) — Ask most MLS fans about Atlanta United and the first thing that likely comes to mind is their aesthetically pleasing and dynamic attack. Considering the record-shattering season 2018 league MVP Josef Martinez just had, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Add in the explosive playmaking ability of Miguel Almiron and further support in the final third from players such as Hector Villalba, Ezequiel Barco, and Julian Gressel and you have a perfect recipe for attacking success. For the second straight season, the Five Stripes finished with 70 regular season goals, tied for the fifth best single-season mark in MLS history.
Atlanta didn’t let up in the playoffs, a big reason why they’re hosting MLS Cup. They put in seven goals, with Martinez accounting for three of them. So their opponent in Saturday’s league championship, the Portland Timbers, have their work cut out for them when it comes to neutralizing Atlanta’s multi-pronged attack.
But Tata Martino’s side is far from one-dimensional. Only three MLS teams allowed fewer goals in 2018. Part of it involves a reliable back four anchored in the middle by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst. Another variable in the equation of solid defensive play is having an industrious holding midfielder who can cover ground, act as a first line of defense in front of the defensive line, and provide quality distribution.
This is where Jeff Larentowicz comes in.
Jeff Larentowicz: A Reliable Veteran Presence for Atlanta United
An MLS Fixture for Over a Decade
Ever since Opta began tracking MLS data, no player has logged as many minutes in the league as Larentowicz. The 35-year-old veteran is an MLS lifer whose stops in the league before joining Atlanta United last year included the New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids, Chicago Fire, and LA Galaxy. He certainly defied the odds to get to this point.
The Revs took Larentowicz in the fourth round of the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft. In essence, he went in the eighth round since there were also the four rounds of the MLS SuperDraft proper. One of his teammates from back then will join him on the field this weekend. New England also drafted center back Michael Parkhurst that year. Only he came off the board a lot earlier as the ninth overall pick.
There are even more Atlanta United connections with that 2005 rookie class. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was the second player taken in that year’s draft by now-defunct Chivas USA. What distinguishes Guzan and Parkhurst from Larentowicz is their stints in Europe before coming back to the States whereas Larentowicz spent his entire career in MLS. But three players who became pro in the same year having a chance to play for a title in the twilight of their careers certainly functions as a full-circle moment.
A Reliable Veteran Presence
It’s pretty clear that Larentowicz has the complete trust of Martino despite him being up there in age. Combining regular season and playoffs, Larentowicz is one of seven Atlanta United players who’ve logged at least 3,000 minutes. He’s a unique mix of battle-hardened know-how and versatility that comes from his immense experience in the league.
This season is just another example of Larentowicz’s reliability when it comes to staying healthy. He started 33 of 34 games and topped 2,500 minutes for the eighth time in the last nine seasons. Though he tweaked his hamstring and missed the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals against New York City FC, he’s played every other minute of the postseason.
What about his on-field persona? He functions as a crucial cog in the midfield both as a ball-winning workhorse and an engine of ball circulation. His combined 3.9 tackles an interceptions per 90 is third on the team among players with at least 2,000 minutes of game action. Only Gonzalez Pirez (4.9) and Franco Escobar (4.5) boast more. And only Darlington Nagbe is completing a higher percentage of his passes than Larentowicz.
The Need for an Unsung Hero
Everybody knows about Martinez, Almiron, and the rest of the Atlanta attack. They’re well aware of how unimaginably dangerous they are when the ball’s in the final third. Martinez does it in so many different ways which is why he’s now in possession of the league’s single-season goal-scoring record. But there are many instances of championships becoming possible because due to the performances of lesser heralded players.
Oftentimes, their efforts don’t show up on the score sheet. Even in today’s day and age with extensive Opta data, there are elements of the game that go underappreciated. Larentowicz possesses those intangibles which is why he’s such an important component to Tata’s midfield. Still, he’s certainly capable of conjuring up magic as he demonstrated on the opening goal of the Eastern Conference final.
Atlanta has certainly had a rough go of it when it comes to winning major sports titles. The Braves dynasty of the 1990s resulted in only one World Series in 1995. The Falcons are 0-2 in the Super Bowl. It included one of the most heartbreaking losses of all-time in Super Bowl LI. The Hawks have been to the NBA Finals four times and won the title once, but that all occurred when the franchise was in St. Louis.
But this soccer juggernaut which is flourishing under owner Arthur Blank, president Darren Eales, and technical director Carlos Bocanegra has a golden opportunity to erase a lot of that anguish. In front of what will undoubtedly be the most raucous crowd in MLS Cup history, the stage is set for some unprecedented fireworks. Laurentowicz doesn’t elicit the flash and pizzazz of Martinez or Almiron. But if he goes out there and does his job just like he’s done ever since his rookie year, MLS title hysteria will grip the South’s most populous city.
Who’d have thought that when he joined the league all those years ago?