Atlanta United captain Jeff Larentowicz (center) and MIles Robinson (right) defend the goal against Club America midfielder Sebastian Cordova in the Campeones Cup on Wednesday, August 14, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Larentowicz thrilled to be back with Atlanta United

Five weeks from entering his 16th MLS season, Jeff Larentowicz said Friday that he is as excited and as motivated for the start of a season as perhaps he has ever felt.

Larentowicz, 36, went through the free-agency process, weighed offers from several clubs, and decided to re-sign with Atlanta United for a fourth consecutive season. The agreement was announced Thursday.

“I wanted it to work out,” he said. “I wanted it to be right. I also spent a long time trying to get free agency in the league. I wouldn’t have done myself any service by not listening to what was out there.  I let it play out. 

“The willingness by Atlanta United was always there to keep me. I really appreciate it. I couldn’t be happier to be here for next season.” 

There were other factors that influenced Larentowicz’s decision. He said his family enjoys living in Atlanta. That he re-gained a starting role near the end of the 2019 season and the team won some games also helped make up his mind. He started the final two games of the regular season and then each of the playoff games. 

“Playing at the end gave me that taste again that I wanted,” he said.

For the season, Larentowicz started 15 games in the league as part of 27 appearances. It was his fewest starts since his rookie season with New England in 2005. His 1,465 minutes played were also the fewest since his rookie season.

But he said his goals for 2020 are the same as they’ve always been.

“I want to be influential in whatever the team is doing,” he said. “I want to play. I want to achieve more. I’m not playing this season to do anything less.”

Larentowicz said next year’s team has a lot of potential. Larentowicz laughed when saying that even taking him out of it, the roster, with Miles Robinson, George Campbell, George Bello and Ezequiel Barco, will be younger. 

A key to helping the product fully match the potential, which he said the team didn’t completely align last season, will be for some of the younger players to follow steps taken by those such as Julian Gressel and take the mental leap from starter to leader. Atlanta United won the U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup and advanced to the finals of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Larentowicz said he doesn’t yet know if 2020 will be his last. He ranks fifth in MLS history among all players in minutes played (34,478). His 418 appearances are second-most in MLS history among field players and 386 starts are third-most.

Before it started, Larentowicz thought that 2019 may have been his final season. Conversations throughout the season with Michael Parkhurst, who eventually retired, helped Larentowicz realize that he wasn’t ready to make the decision then and isn’t now.

“I never allowed myself to do that just because I’m a die hard,” he said. “If I were to put that cap on the bottle and close it off then I don’t know. ... It wouldn’t have been fun to come out of it. I always leave it open-ended. I’m not looking for anything out of my retirement. I won’t make that decision ahead of time.” 

Larentowicz, a member of the  executive board member of the MLS Players Association, has a role in the ongoing negotiations between the MLSPA and the league for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The current CBA expires at the end of January 2020.

Larentowicz said the players are in the spot they want because proposals between the two sides are being exchanged. A meeting is scheduled for next week, possibly in Washington, D.C. near the MLSPA headquarters.

Larentowicz didn’t want to discuss specific points being negotiated. But he said the two sides are talking more about the salary budgets. MLSPA Executive Director Bob Foose has said the players would like the buckets of money -- Designated Players, Targeted Allocation Money, General Allocation Money, for example -- eliminated so that clubs can spend what they have how they want. Larentowicz said the players remain clear what they want and that the league is forming its stance.

Charter flights aren’t being as fervently discussed as the salary pools. The league allows each team a maximum of four charter segments each players. The MLSPA would like to lift that restriction. Larentowicz said the charters aren’t at the top of the negotiations right now because everything can’t be discussed at the same time.

Free agency is important. Free agency in MLS is by name only. Players have to meet strict requirements to qualify and the end result isn’t typically the payday that athletes in other professional sports leagues receive. Larentowicz, for example, had a guaranteed salary of less than $250,000 last year after signing with Atlanta United as a free agent.

“All the stipulations holding players, I especially and we as a group are trying to break down so that it’s more of an open system,” he said. “We are in a place now where the league doesn’t need to be full of fear. Dollars are being spent. Clubs are showing desires and willingness to run their rosters and make their decisions. I think the are fully capable of it.” 

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