Sports

Alum kicks his way into major league soccer

By
Sports Staff Writer

Coming into his freshman year of college, Jeff Larentowicz ’05 certainly didn’t envision a professional soccer career. In fact, he was skeptical about his prospects at the collegiate level.

“I thought Brown was a bit of a reach for my talent level,” Larentowicz said.

But now, Larentowicz is thriving on the American soccer stage in his fifth season with the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer. On Oct. 25, Larentowicz had possibly the biggest moment of his career, when he sent a free kick into the back of the net in the closing minutes of New England’s final regular season match. The goal, Larentowicz’s first of the season, gave the Revolution a 1-0 win over Columbus Crew and clinched the league’s final playoff spot.

Despite Larentowicz’s low expectations coming into Brown, Head Coach Mike Noonan gave him opportunities from the start. Though he was recruited as a forward and was listed under that position for the duration of his freshman year, Noonan recognized that Larentowicz, the son of a soccer coach out of West Chester, Pa., possessed remarkable versatility and aptitude for the game, and inserted him into the rotation as a defender from the outset.

“One of the things that I liked the most about Jeff when I recruited him was that he was very versatile,” Noonan said. “We plugged him in where our need was at the time, and Jeff just got on with what the team’s needs were, and he’s still doing that today with the Revolution.”

Larentowicz did not disappoint, playing in all 16 games that season and leading Brown to a share of the Ivy League championship, and earning All-Ivy honorable mention in the process. His first collegiate goal came in the first half of the team’s final league game, en route to a title-clinching 3-0 win at Harvard.

“It was a big game, and we were all getting up for it,” Larentowicz said. “We had a lot of our students come up for the game, and I just remember scoring the goal and running over to all the fans and celebrating — that was really special.”

Larentowicz continued to excel in his sophomore year, earning second team All-Ivy honors, but it was in his junior year when he really hit his stride.

In addition to first team All-Ivy and All-New England honors on the heels of another Ivy championship season, Larentowicz was named a second team All-American. Larentowicz said it was then that he started seriously thinking about professional soccer as a potential career path, and the summer after his junior year, he trained with a professional club in Sweden for six weeks.

“That was a great experience, and following all that, I thought maybe it was something I wanted to do,” Larentowicz said.

Larentowicz closed out his college career with another All-American season, and the following spring was selected in the fourth and final round of the MLS Draft in the Supplemental phase, as the Revolution took him with the third-to-last overall pick, with encouragement from Noonan.

“I told (New England head coach) Steve Nicol that Jeff was going to be a better professional player than a college player,” Noonan said. “When he gets into a locker room, he’s not intimidated by anybody or anything, and you have to be able to hold your nerve when you first walk into a professional locker room. “

For Larentowicz, though, it was like the beginning of freshman year all over again, as he struggled with the uncertainty of whether or not he would get a chance to contribute.

“Coming in, I don’t think Steve Nicol had the highest hopes for me,” Larentowicz said. “I think he sort of saw me as a practice player, and he gave me a contract to see how I developed, but I don’t think he saw me as someone who was going to come on and play.”
Even Noonan admits that at first glance, Larentowicz may not look like a star.

“Jeff is not blessed with tremendous athleticism — he’d probably be in the bottom third of the Revolution in a speed contest or strength contest, but he is in the top third when it comes to soccer intelligence,” Noonan said. “He’s got a gamesmanship intelligence, he knows how to win, he looks and finds the ways to win and he’s consistent in the way he approaches everything. So you know what you’re going to get consistently in his effort and his attitude.”

This time, Larentowicz didn’t get his chance quite as easily. In his first season with the Revolution, he played just one minute, designated to the reserve team while New England went on to the MLS Cup final.

“I think that the first season playing with the reserves, training with the team every day, and getting a feel for the way the game is played at the pro level was good for me,” Larentowicz said. “In college, people are encouraging you at all times … but at the professional level, people are there to take your job, so if you screw up in practice or in a game, they’re going to let you know about it. So there wasn’t much of a nurturing atmosphere from my teammates at that point.”

Early in the 2006 season, Larentowicz got his chance — New England was plagued by injuries to several key players. Once again, it was Larentowicz’s versatility that gave him a chance to break into the rotation, as he played four different positions — right midfield, center midfield, right back and center back — in his first four appearances.

“I think the coaches saw me as a utility player, who could go in at any position and get the job done,” Larentowicz said.

A watershed moment for Larentowicz came in the fifth game of that season, in a May 2006 matchup with FC Dallas. With the team trailing, 4-0, at halftime, Nicol substituted Larentowicz in at center midfield.

“I played well, and we still lost the game, but I showed well for myself, and from that point on I think the coaches really trusted me,” Larentowicz said. Shortly thereafter, Larentowicz earned a starting spot with New England in 19 games that season, and in the three seasons since then, Larentowicz has started in the majority of games for the Revolution, compiling nine goals and nine assists in his MLS career.

Larentowicz credits much of his development at the professional level to playing alongside Shalrie Joseph, a five-time all-star midfielder for New England.

“We play a system where I can just run around and do the defending and the dirty work, and retrieve the ball for the team and sort of learn on the go,” Larentowicz said. “Over the years, Shalrie and other players have developed more trust in me and understood my abilities.”

The team has enjoyed great success throughout Larentowicz’s career, making the playoffs each year, including two more finals appearances in the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

Heading into the final weekend of the 2009 regular season, the Revolution looked to be on the verge of failing to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2001, as they went into their final game tied for the final spot with three other clubs, two of which would be favored by the league’s tiebreaking procedures.

“The odds against us were incredible,” Larentowicz said. “I don’t even know if anyone on our own team would have gone to Vegas and bet on us, because there were so many scenarios that needed to take place for us to even come close to getting into the playoffs.”

But losses to all three of those teams put New England in control of its own destiny, and in the game’s 79th minute, Larentowicz scored the game’s only goal to seal a spot for the Revolution.

“At my position you don’t get a ton of chances to score goals, but I think when I have had my chances I’ve taken them,” Larentowicz said. “It was important for me, because I practice free kicks a lot and to score felt great, and it was also important for the team to have that little bit of momentum and confidence to go into the first game of the playoffs.”

New England earned a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Fire in its
first game of the postseason, but a 2-0 loss in Game 2 on Saturday night knocked the Revolution out of the playoffs on the basis of aggregate goals.

Though the season came to a disappointing end, Larentowicz remains a celebrated figure in the Brown soccer program. He is one of several players under Noonan to go on to have professional success, including Cory Gibbs ’01, who has played overseas and for the U.S. national team, and Andrew Daniels ’07, who has spent time with FC Dallas.

Larentowicz’s jersey from an MLS title game hangs in Noonan’s office for visiting recruits to see, and Larentowicz himself is still a presence in the program, making regular trips back to Providence to stay connected with the team.

“We’re happy that he continues to come back to Rhode Island — he came down last spring to talk to the guys,” Noonan said. “He’s just a regular person, and very, very thankful for his Brown experience and his Brown degree.”