i. Fiat Homo
When Jeff Larentowicz was acquired by the Chicago Fire before the 2013 season, he was 14 months removed from a training stint with Bolton Wanderers. He was 29 years old, a veteran but not battle-scarred, an Ivy League graduate with a strong resume. He'd formed compelling midfield partnerships with Shalrie Joseph and Pablo Mastroeni; he'd appeared in two MLS Cup finals, winning one; he'd picked up four caps with the USA national team.
He scored this goal against the Fire in 2007:
... which led to New England fans calling him the Ginger Ninja. The nickname followed him west, shouted gleefully by Pids supporters toward their 2011 team MVP.
When the Ginger Ninja came to Chicago in 2013, he was leaving a team which had finished 14th overall and joining one which had finished in a three-way draw for fourth. The Fire, led by an in-form Chris Rolfe and veterans Arne Friedrich and Pavel Pardo, had stormed to the top of the East before stumbling in the final month. Larentowicz was part of a two-man replacement (alongside Joel Lindpere) for the retiring Pardo.
Oh, hindsight. In three seasons of ever-encroaching darkness which have followed, the Fire have played 101 league games, winning 28. The club fired the guy who brought Ginger Ninja in, then hired a new guy - who made him captain - then fired that new guy, too. Larentowicz has stood, agonized, in the midst of all the carnage, his outbursts of frustrated venting more frequent as his simmering rage gets toward a boil.
We come not to bury Jeff Larentowicz, but to praise him. In football as in nature, there is no justice except that which humans create. Predators become prey after one untimely injury, one failure of confidence, one stumble at an inopportune time. If Big Red's time in Chicago hasn't been wildly successful, it's not because of any lack of effort on his part. He's certainly tried.
In the first half of his career, Larentowicz got a reputation as a bit of a hard guy - he'd take the professional foul and a chunk out of you, too, but not (seemingly) through any ill intent. The big ginger just had this sort of exuberant energy, pinballing around midfield careening into people. As maturity settled over him, the exuberance faded, and so did the cards. But who protects him, now? When Larentowicz got to the point in his career where he needed a Larentowicz-type alongside, there was none to be found.
ii. Fiat Lux
Heading into this final game of 2015, Larentowicz' reputation is in tatters. He's captained a Fire team that can't get out of its own way. He has started in the center of an increasingly chaotic and permeable defense. If we're to credit leadership when things go well, surely we should be consistent when less rosy outcomes are on offer?
With that thought in mind, let's shine a little light on Jeff Larentowicz' tenure wearing the Maltese cross badge. Is it Jeff's fault? Or is it a product of flawed planning and incompetent follow-through on the part of successive management teams?
Let's start with Larentowicz' acquisition. In his peak MLS form, Jeff was an energy guy, bouncing around midfield, his size and stamina making him a formidable obstacle while still having enough skill on the ball to keep it circulating. He was never a guy who was asked to control tempo, and he showed little inclination to become that guy. You don't ask the Tasmanian Devil to direct the symphony - but that's precisely what the Leon/Klopas front office did, trying to plug in Larentowicz as a like-for-like replacement for Pavel Pardo's exquisite sense of push and pull.
To his credit, Larentowicz tried to play the part, but it was a harder transition than anticipated. Instead of playing aggressively, largely facing the opponent's goal, he had to focus on being the primary outlet, showing for the ball deep in midfield. Instead of leaning into dribblers, making the turn hard, now he was the dribbler, and the turn was very hard indeed. Then the defense got lobotomized when Arne Friedrich broke down for good, and the word got out quickly: Press the Fire and good things happen.
What's worse, it quickly became clear that Larentowicz' barrelling style made playing without a partner in deep midfield untenable, the sort of revelation that seems obvious once known. Those partnerships - the blood-and-thunder midfield duos with Joseph and Mastroeni - were those formed from inspiration or necessity? And why didn't this occur to anyone before the Fire lost seven out of their first 10?
So here, then, we begin to arrive at Big Red's unravelling: A half-step of quickness too slow, a half-thought of confidence too shy, and the one-time predator suddenly looks a lot like prey. Unable to turn with the ball against the furious pressure which Chicago's hapless defense invites, new boss Frank Yallop asks how Jeff would feel stepping into the backline.
iii. Fiat Voltunas Tua
The premise, entering the 2015 season which we are now thankfully ending, was that Jeff Larentowicz was going to form the kind of partnership he'd shared in previous midfields, but this time on the back line. Although his instincts - honed by a decade as a professional midfielder - often caught him leaning too aggressively, the Fire intended to play a proactive, possession-oriented style; aren't defenders stepping into midfield all the rage in some systems?
And, early on, there were signs that the Fire were becoming the type of squad that would take advantage of Big Red's strengths, rather than expose his weaknesses. An early-season three-game winning streak featured a fluid possession game based around Michael Stephens' canny use of the ball and a high defensive line; Jeff's ability to step forward onto wayward passes kept the ball moving and the opposition on the back foot.
After Stephens rolled his ankle in the seventh game, the Men in Red forgot how to keep the ball, and showed little patience for the kind of detailed work required to play possession consistently. Suddenly, his half-step forward anticipating a wayward pass was catching Larentowicz in no man's land, repeatedly. The idea that he'd thrive by merely being a slightly more defensive version of his midfielder-self died a painful death by multiple breakaways.
Now tasked with being a conventional, old-school center back, Larentowicz also had the task of knitting together an ever-shifting defensive unit. His putative partnership with Adailton was plagued by missed assignments and puzzling let-downs in crucial moments; so, too, those with Eric Gehrig, and Daneil Cyrus, and ... the inability to find success in these groupings may have little to do with Larentowicz. Or everything.
What's indisputable is that Larentowicz has gone along with these decisions like a good soldier, comported himself with dignity, and offered no excuses in the aftermath of gut-wrenchingly awful outcomes. The image I will keep in my mind of 2015 is Big Red, his eyes bloodshot and neck-veins popping as he screams in primal rage at the sky after another comically terrible defensive breakdown. Whatever one says about Larentowicz, "He doesn't care" cannot be the claim.
Jeff Larentowicz entered this organization with a reputation as one of MLS' best domestic midfielders; when he leaves (which will likely be soon), that rep is a past thing, a thing he's surrendered at least partially in service of this club. Whatever the outcomes have been, we owe him honor for the sacrifice.