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Meet the college coach who’s been helping shape Atlanta United since the 90s

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Clemson’s Mike Noonan is the thread that connects Atlanta United’s developmental players to its top executive

Carl Ackerman, Clemson Athletics

If you’re keeping a close eye on all things Atlanta United this pre-season, you may have noticed this Atlanta United 2 scoreline:

You may have two questions: First off, why was Atlanta United 2 playing Clemson? Secondly, how the hell did they lose?

The answer to both questions is Mike Noonan.

There is no single collegiate coach in the country that has affected the entity that is Atlanta United like Clemson head coach Mike Noonan. The Atlanta United first team, ATL UTD 2 and the Atlanta United front office all have connections to Noonan. His influence on the reigning MLS champions goes back all the way to 2001, 16 years before Atlanta United played its first match.

Noonan, then the head coach at Brown University, traveled to a regional tournament to watch FC Delco, a West Chester, Pennsylvania club that did and continues to churn out collegiate talent. Noonan planned to keep an eye on one player — one he had already been recruiting. That plan changed when Noonan took stock of a lanky, redheaded FC Delco player seamlessly slotting into multiple positions. By the end of the tournament, Brown had a new recruit on its radar named Jeff Larentowicz.

“I played like four positions in one game,” Larentowicz said. “He didn’t know who I was before the game but then he knew who I was after that.”

Atlanta United fans may take comfort in the fact that the Larentowicz they know today isn’t too far from the club player Noonan stumbled upon. Even early on, Larentowicz had a calming effect on his teammates. The soccer equivalent of Jeff Lebowski’s rug.

“It was one of those things when, as a coach, you’re recruiting and you’re looking at Jeff and going, ‘He kind of ties everything together,’” Noonan said. “There’s some talent on this team, but Jeff was the one. He was a gritty player. And at that point, he initially wasn’t starting on the team. He’d be like the 12th man. But whenever he went on the field the team got better.”

With Larentowicz now under what he called the “Noonan seal of approval,” teams like Cornell and Columbia swooped in with offers. But Larentowicz stuck with Brown, and Noonan didn’t coddle him when he came in as a freshman.

“It was the most tactical preparation I had ever had up until that point. He was extremely intense,” Larentowicz said. “[Noonan] told all of us, ‘I’m turning 40 now. It’s time for me to calm down a bit.’ That didn’t change anything.”

Larentowicz didn’t take long to work his way into Noonan’s squad. Brown’s starting center back was suspended for the Bears’ first game of the season, and the second stringer got hurt in preseason. In stepped attacking-minded — no, really — Jeff Larentowicz.

“When I came in I was recruited as an attacking player. Noonan came up to me and said,

‘Have you ever played center back?’

‘Yes, but not really.’

‘Well. You’re going to play center back.’

“I never left that position. Even when I was getting announced during games the first three years I was there they would say ’THE FORWARD FROM WEST CHESTER, PENNSYLVANIA: JEFF LARENTOWICZ.’ I went in there as an attacking player and I played four years at central defender.

“The learning curve was big but you were also learning from a great teacher. It was pretty easy in that sense.”

Larentowicz started about half of Brown’s games that year. Over time, the newly-minted central defender became a fixture for the Bears on and off the field — an apt defenseman and a social butterfly. An enactor of a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality gave Larentowicz a sky-high level of what Noonan called “social capital.”

Larentowicz’s social standing on the team left Noonan with no choice but to name the defender Brown’s captain in his senior year, a promotion that clashed with Noonan’s normal mold of a leader.

“He didn’t display all of the characteristics that you’d want in a captain in terms of his discipline,” said Noonan. “He had a fiery temper.”

Looking back now, Larentowicz says Noonan’s assessment hits the mark.

“The social capital thing...yes. Without question. I had a lot of fun in college and I don’t think it was necessarily good for everybody when it came to soccer. I was always able to do it but I don’t think that set the best example for others.

“As far as the temper thing goes. Absolutely. I always wanted to win and beat the person in front of me. If that was a teammate in practice it didn’t matter. That wasn’t always good for the team. I fully admit that. Even at the end of that year we didn’t finish the way we should have and I take a bit of responsibility for that.”

While there were flaws in the initial casting, both men agree that Larentowicz grew into the role, understanding that his teammates couldn’t be — and maybe didn’t want to be — Jeff Larentowicz.

“I learned that at that age you just expect the guys to be the same as you,” Larentowicz said.

“[I kept thinking,] ‘I don’t understand why these guys aren’t playing the same way. I don’t understand why these guys aren’t working as hard. I don’t understand why these guys can’t go out until four in the morning and then come in and train really hard.’ But you learn it’s much more than that.”

Larentowicz would later go on to become a captain in MLS for the Chicago Fire, taking these lessons he learned at Brown with him. But before he could do that, he had to actually get into the league. That may not have happened without Noonan, who, in addition to his coaching duties, worked as a color commentator for the New England Revolution radio broadcast. He had connections.

“I had to beg Steve Nichol to take him in the supplemental draft. I begged New England,” Noonan said. “Steve and Paul Mariner were there and I said listen, ‘He’s going to be a better pro than he is a college player.’ He had a chip on his shoulder. He had that sense that I’ve never arrived, I’ve always had to work, I’ve always got to get better, every day.”

The Revolution took Larentowicz in the last round of the 2005 draft with their last pick. 45th out of 48 players. The only two players from that draft still starting in MLS? Chris Wondoloski and Jeff Larentowicz.

Noonan kept a close eye on Larentowicz as he began his time with the Revolution. Slowly but surely, Noonan noticed attributes forming that would lead to a career with 393 league appearances — the third most in MLS history and still climbing.

“I think he played two minutes his first year with New England,” said Noonan.” His second year he started getting some time and he would make ten yard passes. And that’s all he’d do. And then he’d make several ten yard passes. And I’m sitting there watching him play and I know his range of pass and I’m sitting there going like, ‘He’s just connecting the dots. Wait till they find out how good a player he actually is.’

***

As Larentowicz began to blossom in MLS, Noonan left Providence for Clemson, South Carolina. The Tigers and ACC soccer meant a bigger stage and bigger opportunities. His first Tiger team in 2010 finished seventh in the conference, as did the 2011 team. By 2013, Clemson reached the NCAA Tournament. By 2014, the Tigers won the ACC for the first time in 13 years. By 2015, Noonan had taken the program from seventh in the conference to the NCAA title game where the Tigers fell to a Stanford team led by Jordan Morris. Clemson has made the NCAA Tournament every year since.

In the midst of Noonan’s Tiger turnaround were four players who would end up with Atlanta United. Former Clemson midfielder and captain Bobby Belair is a Player Advocate Liason. Former Clemson assistant coach Liam Curran is the head goalkeeping coach for the academy. And Clemson players Jack Metcalf and Oliver Shannon both played for the first edition of ATL UTD 2.

The former Noonan players, including Larentowicz, say they talk about their time under “Noons.” While the experiences are mostly similar, there is a binding constant present in each of the players’ college careers whether they attended Clemson or Brown: The Run.

It may not actually have an official title but every Noonan player has done The Run. Or at least attempted it. The Run...The Run sounds really damn hard.

Three miles. 18 minutes. That’s all you get. If you don’t finish under 18, you fail. And by the way, it’s happening at the beginning of the year so if you spent the offseason doing anything but conditioning, well...

Larentowicz says he never failed at the beginning of the year, although he did fail once in an offseason edition. ATL UTD 2’s Metcalf says he failed a handful of times. Former ATL UTD 2 player Oliver Shannon says that once he had the fastest time on the team — but the entire team failed.

“That’s the famous test,” Shannon said. “We used to say it’s not even a fitness test it’s all mental.”

These players have taken the mentality they learned from Noonan and The Run to Atlanta, where the Noonan influence isn’t a coincidence. Although, it may be a bit lucky for both parties that Noonan has known the club president since 1994. It may be even luckier that the same club president helped in part with getting Noonan a job.

***

In 1994, Darren Eales earned All-American honors at Brown University and was named the Ivy League Player of the Year as a senior forward. At the time, Noonan was in charge of a University of New Hampshire team that fielded just two scholarship players. The Wildcats ran into Eales and the Bears twice that season, once in the regular season and once in the NCAA Tournament, and Noonan made sure his team keyed in on Eales before both games.

“He was very active. Had a good nose for the goal. He’s not like [Josef] Martinez, he’s like a cross between Martinez and [Miguel] Almiron as a player,” said Noonan. “His stature is more like Martinez but he was pretty fluid and ran off the shoulders of people really well. He had an attacking personality and he was certainly the first name on the scouting report when we played against Brown.”

Eales and company were the better team, but New Hampshire held their own against the Bears. In fact, they did well enough for Noonan to earn consideration for the newly available Brown job later that year. Naturally, Brown looked to their All-American for input.

“[Brown] had a process where the players were actually quite heavily involved,” Eales said. “I clearly knew the people that were still on the team and [the hire] was something we all discussed because it was important to the university to get the right person in. I was involved at that level of who’s coming in.”

Noonan took over at Brown for Eales’ final days on campus. Along with being a great player, Noonan quickly realized Eales’ mind was sharper than most.

“His teammates were pretty jealous because he was one of those guys who didn’t have to work very hard and always did really well...or appeared that he didn’t work very hard academically and was doing exceptionally well,” Noonan said. “He was up in a little bit of higher plane when it came to soccer, when it came to his academics, when it came everything. He knew he was going to be successful. And everyone else knew he was going to be successful too.”

Even though Eales never officially played under Noonan, the pair kept in touch. After over 20 years separated by an ocean, the two find themselves two hours apart. It’s good news for Eales, who has a trusted source and talent producer a short road trip up I-85 away.

“It’s helpful when you can speak to people that you trust and who you can respect when you’re asking in terms of character and in terms of player ability. The thing I like is that we’ve got a great relationship but I know that he’s going to be honest as well. He’s not just going to tell you what you want to hear, but he’s going to give you a real view,” Eales said. “In the world of soccer that’s what you really rely on is people giving you the truth when you ask a question. You get that from people you trust you kind of build that relationship up. I know that it’s going to be the unvarnished truth and not just what I want to hear to get someone drafted.”

No one who played for Noonan is surprised by the fact that he’s stayed in contact with Eales. He keeps in touch with former players, many of whom often return to campus to catch the next edition of each Noonan team.

“I say to kids that it’s not just a four-year relationship when you come here at Clemson or at Brown, it’s a 40-year relationship. And if I can help them in any way I’m going to. I feel that they’ll do the exact same for us.”

For Noonan and his players, a large part of building those relationships is creating confidence.

“When I went from Everton to Clemson I definitely improved,” Shannon said. “I think the biggest thing would be him giving me a lot of confidence. When I was at Everton I obviously didn’t get the professional contract. I was there from five to 18 so it was kind of all new and to not make that final hurdle it was like…’Wow. I’m at the final crossroads now.’ But as soon as I got to Clemson I was a starter from day one. He put trust in me and didn’t let me get away with poor performances.”

In most cases, “a 40-year relationship” is cliched coach-speak. For Noonan, it seems different. They genuinely stay in contact. Larentowicz had Noonan at his wedding and the two still text often. Shannon and Metcalf hear from Noonan regularly. The players don’t get away from him or what he instilled in college.

“Something I’m still trying to do today is live to those standards that he set,” Metcalf said. “For me personally, going to Clemson and playing under Coach Noonan for those four years has changed my life in terms of the person I am off the field and here I am on the field. I think for myself and for sure the other guys have got huge respect for that.”

***

As for Noonan’s overall effect on Atlanta United, he recognizes it’s a small part of a much bigger picture for him, the club and his former players. But hey, if he can keep players close by, send them to a championship-winning organization, maybe beat a team of players from said professional organization with a team of college players from time to time, and continue to watch his efforts result in players growing professionally and personally, then Noonan is happy with the part he’s played.

“I don’t think I’ve had a great deal of impact [on Atlanta United]. I think some players that I’ve coached have had a big impact,” Noonan said. “But their experience here is something that they value and I’m happy for that when they’ve moved on to the professional world. I’m happy we’ve been able to be a small part of that world.”