How Jeff Larentowicz became Atlanta United's not-so-secret playoff weapon

MARIETTA, Ga. — Having outscored its opponents 7-1 through three games in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, Atlanta United has dominated play so far thanks in part to a shrewd tactical switch.

Atlanta coach Tata Martino has moved 14-year MLS veteran Jeff Larentowicz — a midfielder by trade — into a role as a third center back in two of those matches. The result? Clean sheet victories in both and an overall defensive mettle the Five Stripes occasionally lacked during the the regular season. 

“That’s typical Jeff,” Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst said with a grin. “He can do what he's asked to do, and do it for the team selflessly and do it at a high level. He made a lot of big plays the other night.”

It's certainly been a trial by fire for one the longest-tenured players in MLS. In Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Larentowicz met the task of helping Atlanta shut down a wealth of attacking options in a 1-0 triumph, played at one of MLS' most difficult away venues New York City FC's intimate Yankee Stadium pitch.

In Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Championship on Sunday, he helped Atlanta to a dominant 3-0 win over a New York Red Bulls side that previously had posed problems for Martino and company. (A hamstring injury kept him out of Atlanta's 3-1 victory over NYCFC in Leg 2 of the Conference Semifinals.)

"The Red Bulls are so good at getting in your face, winning battles, winning second balls," Larentowicz said this week. "You have to match it. You have to know that's what's going to come at you and you have to match that level of intensity. It was a dogfight in the middle of the field [Sunday], and it often is against Red Bulls, so you have to be ready for it."

Parkhurst described Larentowicz's value by recalling a play early in Atlanta’s win over the Red Bulls, in which Larentowicz raced 20 yards to cut off a sprinting Kaku run down the center, intercept the ball and distribute (The play in question could be the one below).

“That [play] set the tone for the night, that we were going to be there to shut them down,” said Parkhurst. “He's a big, big part of that, and then he gets the assist as well. I'm happy for him that he's been such a big reason we're having the success we've had.”

The most surprising part of Larentowicz’s game isn’t the singular play he makes to deny Kaku or the superb cross he played for Josef Martinez’s opening goal. It’s the accumulation of these plays, match after match and season after season, of “typical Jeff.” The former Ivy League standout turned 35 in August.

“That's always what we expect from our leaders, and he's one of them,”said Martino, who has put more faith into Larentowicz than just about anyone. In 2018, Larentowicz has made the second-most appearances and starts he’s ever had in a season. His 80 appearances in all competitions since his arrival in Atlanta are the most he’s ever had in a two-year span in his career.

“Tata understand the strengths of each player individually and how those strengths can help the team in a more broader sense,” Parkhurst said. “Obviously he knows Jeff can play that position [at right center back]. Tata knows the formation that's best going to suit us, and everyone's doing their role. That's what it's all about — you do your role individually, and then collectively things will work out. Right now, that's what we're doing and it's working.”