Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz wanted to play in the second leg of the MLS playoffs against NYCFC.
He tried. But after testing his strained hamstring on Thursday, a few days before the game on Nov. 11, he realized that he could probably have fought through the pain and been used as a defensive midfielder or centerback. But if something bad happened in the game, and he cost his team the result and series, well, he just couldn’t stomach that.
“The team’s goals are bigger than whether I’m playing or not,” he said.
Now healthier, Larentowicz is training with the team in preparation for the Eastern Conference finals against New York Red Bulls. The first game will be Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Though he didn’t play, Larentowicz sat in his team’s locker room in the $1.6 billion building for the second leg of the series against NYCFC. He estimates he drank about 12 cups of coffee while watching the game. There may have been screaming.
“To watch that was difficult,” he said. “I had a lot of confidence in the team, but it doesn’t make it easy.”
The emotions were obviously high for a lot of reasons.
Like most professional athletes, Larentowicz is an intense competitor. Teammates Franco Escobar and Julian Gressel said sometimes all Larentowicz needs to do is give them a look to get his point across.
“Jeff brings a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge and a lot of fight and a lot of grit,” Gressel said. “That helps us a lot.
“I saw how disappointed he was when he said he wasn’t going to play. He was pretty upset. Never good when you see a teammate like that. I told him before the second New York City game that there would be another game to play in. I’m glad he’s back out.”
Larentowicz said he finds that funny because he said the looks don’t work on his kids. But he understands the point.
“There’s a lot of different looks, though,” he said. “In a tense situation, if you can look relaxed or happy it can take the edge off things. In moments when you need to be tough, people can see it on each other’s faces. I think you use more of the latter. However, there are certain guys that have a way to use tension.”
Secondly, Larentowicz’s career is closer to the end than the beginning. The 35-year-old has 391 regular-seasons appearances in MLS, including 67 in the past two seasons with Atlanta United. Thought to be out of a contract at the end of the season and in a league whose structure can make it difficult on veterans when looking for their next gig, Larentowicz may not have many chances remaining to win his second MLS Cup.
He said on Monday that he is only focused on his current team and current contract. That has served him well throughout a career that has included stops in New England, Colorado, where he won an MLS Cup in 2010, Chicago and with the L.A. Galaxy.
Gressel said Larentowicz has shared with the team his experiences winning the MLS Cup.
“The old sage,” Larentowicz said.
Though he is older than every one of his teammates, it’s not like “Storytime with Jeff.” He said he has tried to explain approaches to those who haven’t experienced the uniqueness of a two-legged series. Gressel’s first was against NYCFC. Atlanta United won both legs, 1-0 at Yankee Stadium, which is where Larentowicz suffered his hamstring strain, and 3-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
If they can navigate one more series, they will play for the MLS Cup.
His advice seems fitting for what he just experienced when he couldn’t play.
“You don’t see it a ton,” he said. “Times you feel down and out and you’re not.”