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Here’s how Atlanta United spells competitive toughness: Larentowicz

If Jeff Larentowicz’s calculations are correct – and we must trust they are because he’s a real smart Ivy Leaguer and pretty much a human Fitbit – then your typical professional soccer midfielder will run about four miles per match.

Larentowicz ranks fourth all-time in MLS starts (371) and appearances (391). Do the math. That means he has run roughly more than 1,500 miles in the service of American professional soccer.

He’s also the eldest member of Atlanta United, although it’s not obvious. “He’s not 23 anymore, but he looks it the way he’s playing,” teammate Kevin Kratz said.

“I thought last year he had a fantastic season, and I think this year he’s been even better. Which is really impressive because he’s even older than I am. Don’t forget to note that,” winked United’s 34-year-old team captain Michael Parkhurst.

So, how does he do it? How does Larentowicz at 35 run and run and run and keep showing up in MLS championship games? Saturday will be his fifth one, with a third different team, United. He won one with Colorado in 2010. All this can’t be coincidence. Nobody’s just stumbles into that kind of career note. 

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For one thing, Larentowicz figures he comes by the high-mileage motor naturally.

“I think a lot of it is genetics and luck,” he said. “My dad was a runner, so I think I probably had that in me. You try to avoid injury and keep yourself as healthy as possible. Even as much as you try you sometimes can’t avoid it. That’s the luck part of it.”

These aren’t just highway miles he’s put on. These are tough, inner city-kind of miles, filled with sliding tackles, close marking of some young flash, intense little games of keep-away with the ball, running to some gap in the Atlanta United alignment like a firetruck to a burning apartment building.   

There’s a lot of flash on United, given dynamic goal-scorers and playmakers such as Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. But any great team also needs the strong, often unnoticed bonding agents that keep it all together.  

Call them enablers. Call them glue guys. Whatever compliment for a complimentary player that fits.

Look at guys such as Larentowicz and Parkhurst (who in his fifth MLS Cup final will be attempting to win his first) and you will find the frame upon which a winning team might be built. 

The two of them played together early in their careers with the New England Revolution, and immediately went to three consecutive MLS Cups in 2005-07. At the other end of their careers, Parkhurst was traded here by Columbus while Larentowicz came of his own free will to a start-up franchise in the South, as a free agent.

Asked how big was the leap of faith required of a player to entrust the closing years of a long career to a new team, Larentowicz said, “Not as big as you might think.”

“It was exciting more than anything. There’s a lot of excitement in the unknown,” he said. “Before I got here, there already was a lot of talk about what it was going to look like, how many tickets were sold and the investment going into it. The training ground was being built and it was halfway there. Those were all things I really didn’t have in my career at other places.”

What Atlanta United gained in the deal likely was the toughest-minded soccer player to ever get a degree in public policy of American institutions from Brown.

A no-nonsense type who has no use for social media and who never wears the championship ring he won with Colorado, if even to inspire his unadorned Atlanta United teammates. “I’m not much of a ring guy,” he shrugged. That bit of unworn jewelry resides back in his parents’ home in Pennsylvania.

Who better than Parkhurst to fill in the details of his teammate’s impact on Atlanta United where the usual statistics fail? (Larentowicz has one goal and two assists this season).

“He’s been a great teammate, and anyone who has ever played with him would say the same thing. He’s just one of those guys who is selfless,” Parkhurst said.

The testimonial continued: “He’s a big personality in the locker room, as far as experience and someone to lean on. A guy whose out at training every day, doesn’t take days off, doesn’t take games off, just goes about his business. Someone you can rely on no matter what position he plays, what’s going on the outside. He’s going to have a good performance. He’s going to have a professional attitude. And you love to play with those types of guys.”

Well, perhaps there is one person better equipped to sum up the role of the eldest player on an ambitious young franchise.

Asked to perform what sounds like a basic interview task, but actually can be kind of difficult – describe yourself as a player – Larentowicz is more than up to it. 

“I like to do things for others,” he began. “I like to consider myself a selfless player. When I play in the middle of the field, you’re invariably playing next to greater talent – Miguel, Julian (Gressel), whoever it is. I want them to have the opportunity to do what they do best. If that means me taking (the ball) from the (opposing) team and giving it to them, or if that means me shutting down somebody on the other team so that they have more room to play, then that’s what I’m happy doing.

“I’m happy doing the things that make the team win.”

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