Jeff Larentowicz savors conference championship berth after injury scare

Jeff Larentowicz - holds face - after miss vs NYCFC

MARIETTA, Ga. — Of all the Atlanta United players at Monday's training session, perhaps none were happier to be there than Jeff Larentowicz. Because even the hardest practice couldn't compare to the agony he experienced in helplessly watching his team's last playoff game from the dressing room.

With a hamstring injury forcing Larentowicz out of consideration for the second leg of Atlanta's conference semifinal against New York City FC, that's exactly where he spent the Five Stripes' 3-1 victory in Leg 2.

“To watch that was extremely difficult,” Larentowicz said. “I had a lot of confidence in the team, but that doesn't make it any easier. I watched it in the locker room with probably about 12 cups of coffee. I was just screaming at the TV.”

It all began with about 10 minutes to go in Atlanta’s first leg win against NYCFC in Yankee Stadium. His hamstring wasn’t right.

Despite coach Tata Martino only using one of his three substitutes in the game, Larentowicz finished out the match, helping Atlanta secure a crucial 1-0 win that gave the Five Stripes the cushion it needed heading back home for the second leg.

Buoyed by the result, Larentowicz tried to get himself fit again for the deciding second leg at home in front of more than 70,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But something still wasn’t quite right, and come Thursday morning at training, the 35-year-old knew he’d have to tell his teammates that they’d have to play without him.

“It was really tough. But the team's goals are bigger than whether I'm playing or not,” Larentowicz told media Monday morning. “I said to myself, 'If something happens where I let the team down because I'm forcing myself to play, that would be more of an issue.'”

Larentowicz is not used to missing matches. When he plays in his next regular season match, he will move into a tie for third place all time in MLS appearances and starts with Brad Davis and Steve Ralston, respectively.

Julian Gressel, who in only his second season in MLS, explained how Larentowicz’s value extends beyond the lines of the pitch. Gressel said Larentowicz frequently discusses the mental side of the game with younger players, helping them keep focused in high stakes environments like the MLS Cup playoffs. Larentowicz himself even joked that he’s “the old sage” of the team. But that doesn't mean he was able to conceal his disappointment at not playing in the return leg.

“I saw how disappointed he was when he told us he wasn't going to be able to play,” Gressel said on Monday. “He was pretty upset. It was tough, it's never good when you see a teammate like that, but I told him before that match that he'd have another game to play in and I'm glad he's back.”