CHARLESTON, S.C. — He may only be on the team for a little more than a month, but you can already see Jeff Larentowicz slowly developing into the new leader of the 2013 Chicago Fire.
It helps that he mans one of the most influential positions at central midfield: Larentowicz, who was coveted by other MLS clubs during the offseason, is the heartbeat of the new-look Fire: the general who is setting the tone on the field during preseason.
The first half of Wednesday's match against the Charleston Battery in the Carolina Challenge Cup was another case in point. Larentowicz was an omnipresent tackler, switching the field as he is known to do and regularly supplying that first pass to jumpstart the attack.
"I’ve felt Jeff has been very good [during preseason]," said Fire manager Frank Klopas earlier this week. "Mentality. He's just very good with the ball and always, no matter what you do, the guy gives you 100 percent."
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"It’s coming together," Larentowicz told MLSsoccer.com about the team's evolution after Wednesday's 2-1 win. "It’s not something we thought would happen right away. It takes a couple of weeks. I think that we’ve gotten a couple of results and not performed particularly up to the par we think we could be at. But we’re preparing for a week from this weekend [for Chicago's March 3 opener at the LA Galaxy]."
What should also encourage Fire fans is that they've yet to see the best of their 29-year-old acquisition. That's because even a veteran of eight MLS seasons like Larentowicz needs an adjustment period after a trade, especially when it comes to off-field matters.
He admits that since the Jan. 16 switch from Colorado to Chicago, he has only spent three days in the Windy City and managing through relocation with his wife is "difficult."
"I understand that they are looking at me to be a leader and that’s something I’m comfortable with doing," Larentowicz said. "Once everything settles down that’ll be easily handled by me."
While Fire captain Logan Pause continues to be a loyal servant for the club, Larentowicz brings a different dynamic. His intensity and bite at center mid alongside newcomer Joel Lindpere will need to replace the natural leadership skills of last year's center-mid pairing: the 31-year-old Pause, who has been moved to fullback in preseason, and the since retired Pável Pardo.
Chicago Designated Player Sherjill MacDonald feels that Pardo's absence will especially be missed.
"It's going to be very difficult to replace him, specifically the quality but also the leadership on the field," MacDonald told MLSsoccer.com earlier in preseason about Pardo's departure. "It's his leadership. When Pável went on the field, everyone wanted to follow him and he's not there anymore. Somebody has to take that role."
And Larentowicz has as good a chance as any player on this Fire squad constructed by Klopas, who made sure to bring in a few new feisty faces to start the season. That feistiness may have been the missing ingredient in last year's playoff run, cut short after just one game — a home Knockout Round loss to Houston.
"As a team, you look at certain things [in 2012] and mental toughness is one I can say," Klopas told MLSsoccer.com. "You get in a game and when it’s tough and when things don’t go your way, to have that mental toughness. It’s not that we gave up. It’s the mental toughness to be better. We brought in some players that I think bring that."
It's a new team in Chicago, one that even has Larentowicz dreaming big.
"It’s a solid team," Larentowicz says. "We have a strong attacking core and at the same time we have young defenders that are developing as well with a guy like Arne [Friedrich] who can lead them and show them the way. We have a a lot of different pieces. It’s hard to say what particularly we are [as far as identity], but I think we’re going to be a team that’s going to be up there in the end.”