HARRISON, N.J. — In the 13 years since Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst first played in MLS Cup together, Major League Soccer has drastically changed.
The 35-year-old Larentowicz and Parkhurst, 34, played in and lost three MLS Cups with the New England Revolution in 2005, 2006 and 2007 before Parkhurst left for Europe.
Between then and now, Larentowicz won a title with the Colorado Rapids in 2010, while Parkhurst came up short at home with the Columbus Crew in 2015.
On Dec. 8, the pair of MLS veterans have a chance to finally hoist the trophy together while taking the league’s championship game into another stratosphere.
“The best thing would be we play in front of 72,000 people and we win,” Larentowicz told Pro Soccer USA right after his team knocked off Supporters Shield winners, the New York Red Bulls, Thursday night in the Eastern Conference final. “I think the league knows, people around the country know about Atlanta and what we’re doing, and this is just a nice little special thing they get at the end of the year to cap it off. They’re going to do it right. They’re going to do it well.
The Five Stripes will host the Western Conference champion Portland Timbers for the 7:30 p.m. ET championship match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It’s pretty cool,” Parkhurst told Pro Soccer USA. “We started off our career together in New England going to three straight and now toward the tail end of our careers we get another opportunity to do it again together, and hopefully this one will have a different outcome than those three.”
Since Larentowicz has lifted the MLS Cup before in his career, he wants to bring one home for his long-time teammate, who many regard as one of the best veterans the league has to offer.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Michael,” Larentowicz said. “To get back to it is great, to win it would be extra special. I think he’s had a long, very, very good career and I really want to win it for him too.
“It’s going to take a lot of work, but he deserves to be known as a champion in the league. He is perceived that way and it’ll be the capstone for him.”
Parkhurst knows how much the heartbreak of losing a championship match hurts, and it’s a familiar feeling for Atlanta sports fans, who recently suffered through the Atlanta Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
“I know the disappointment,” Parkhurst said. “I know how it feels to lose a final, and it’s crushing. I would love to know what it feels like to lift the trophy and to celebrate and party and be a champion like that. It would mean a lot for sure, and it would mean a lot for the city as well because the support’s been amazing.”
Although Larentowicz and Parkhurst have been to MLS Cups before, they admit it’s much more difficult now, with the way the league is set up, to even get back to the final more than once. MLS continues to grow its number of teams through expansion, the playoff format makes advancing round-by-round strenuous on each club and parity increases by the year.
“It’s a lot bigger now,” Parkhurst said. “It’s tougher to get there with the quality of the players, the quality of the team, the playoff format. All those things make it more difficult to get there, nevermind win it.”
“It’s such a bigger event as well. There’s so much more media coverage and lead up. It’s just a grander stage so I got a feel of that difference when we hosted in Columbus and I’m sure it’s going to be even bigger this year in Atlanta.”
It’ll take plenty of concentration and a similar domination on home soil to the Five Stripes’ first leg of the Eastern Conference final, which they won 3-0, to allow the MLS veterans to lift the MLS Cup in front of a raucous fan base on the biggest stage MLS has ever been on.
But they know well how to prepare, and they’ll pass the advice on to their teammates as the final gets closer.
“The next few days will be chaotic with a lot of media, a lot of people asking for tickets, especially with it being a home game,” Parkhurst said. “Taking care of that stuff early in the week so you can focus on the game when it comes time.”
“In the game, it’s a soccer game of course. You go out there and you have to bring the intensity, but you also have to play and enjoy it. It’s important to know it’s okay to be nervous to get the first touches in, that’s what we missed in Columbus and we gave up the early goal before everyone could get a touch and get into the game so that’ll be a lesson passed along.”
Larentowicz knows what to expect, too, but said no one can truly be prepared for the hype surrounding the event until they’re there.
“As much as you can talk about it, you can’t fully be prepared until you’re out there and in it and see what’s going on,” he said. “It’s a lot of excitement. There’s a lot of attention to the game and to the team. There’s tons of media and things like that the guys will have to adjust to, but these guys come from places where they play in huge games and pressure situations and in front of lots of people and they’ll be up for it.”