Photo: Paul Rudderow
In the hours following the Union’s official announcement of their decision to sell Sebastien Le Toux to the Vancouver Whitecaps, the French striker showed the professionalism, character, and emotion that made him such a beloved figure in Philadelphia. Between his first press conference as a member of the Whitecaps and an impromptu sending off at a neighborhood pub, the face of the Union and statistical leader in nearly every offensive category came off as both a devoted pro and a profoundly sentimental and likable man.
Mere hours after learning of his sale from assistant coach John Hackworth, Le Toux had refocused and was fully prepared to wave the Whitecaps banner as he took questions for the first time as a member of the second-year Canadian outfit. And while he hit all the right notes, Le Toux’s tone held none of the jocular, magnetizing warmth to which Union fans and members of the media have grown accustomed. As time passes, the Vancouver public will get to see jovial Le Toux, but on Tuesday his tone remained monotonous as he discussed his move back to the Cascadian Mountains.
When it came to Union related questions, Le Toux took the high road, choosing to focus on his future in Vancouver, rather than dwelling on his time in Philadelphia. As one of the players who came up with Seattle when they made the leap from the USL to MLS, Le Toux spoke of fond memories in which he scored critical goals in the tense rivalry between the two sides and how he is looking forward to helping the Whitecaps repay the Sounders now that both have ascended to MLS. He discussed at length how he hoped to be part of turning Vancouver into a playoff contender in 2012 and reuniting with former teammate Jordan Harvey. In their brief existence, Le Toux is now the fourth former Union player to represent Vancouver, joining GK Brad Knighton on the current roster, while winger Shea Salinas has moved on to San Jose following a 2011 season in Vancouver.
When asked about how his two years in Philadelphia had changed him, Le Toux elected to stick to the game on the field, saying simply, ”I was playing in Philadelphia in a position that I didn’t play a lot in with Seattle. I really liked to play forward in Philly. Vancouver hasn’t told me the position they want me to play, but I like to play forward and I think that’s a position where the coaches want me to play.”
Le Toux admitted to being blindsided when he heard the news as he had not received warning from the club that such a deal was imminent. Instead, it was assistant coach John Hackworth—not Peter Nowak—who informed him of his transfer as he prepared for practice Tuesday morning. Still, if there was any animosity in his departure from Philadelphia, Le Toux managed to downplay it in the teleconference, with only vague references to Vancouver as being a better option, as it was a chance to play for a team that truly wanted him.
Not even a question about his return to PPL Park on March 31 drew Le Toux off task as a committed Whitecap, and he was quick to lump future returns to Philadelphia in with matches played for the Union against Seattle, ”I think it’s always a pleasure to come back in a stadium you have played in,” he said. “I was always happy to come back and play in Seattle and I will be happy to come back to Philadelphia. They have great fans. I’m sure it will be great. I just want to win with Vancouver and show that Vancouver is a great team.”
To hear such words from Le Toux is surely a bitter pill for Union supporters to swallow, but they represent the caliber of the man who once wore the No. 9 for the Union. Dedicated and loyal to his team, Le Toux marked the beginning of his career with Vancouver by committing himself 100 percent to the cause.
The man behind the pro…
Less than two hours after that conversation, Le Toux was barraged by friends, supporters and well-wishers at Kildare’s Irish Pub in West Chester. In an insightful interview with Chris Vito of the Daily Times, an emotional Le Toux revealed his affection for Philadelphia and his anguish at being shown the door by the Union front office.
“Just give me a contract and I will sign it,” Le Toux said in the interview. “I wanted to stay in Philly. I didn’t care about the money.”
Hearing Le Toux relay his personal frustration at not being allowed to stay with the team he had propped up, singlehandedly at times, is particularly poignant given that exactly one year ago on this day, Michael Orozco Fiscal spoke glowingly of his own desire to make a career, and a life in Philadelphia.
“I want to stay here permanently,” Orozco had said. “I want to be here. I want to be part of Philadelphia.”
That quote was later curtly dismissed by manager Peter Nowak, “Michael Orozco Fiscal was on a one-year loan with an option to buy,” Nowak explained. “We didn’t exercise the option of his contract, so basically since January 1, he is the property of his former club, not the property of Philadelphia Union or Major League Soccer.”
While two incidents do not define a trend, Le Toux’s revealing statements about his treatment behind closed doors sound a worrying alarm for a fan base still in its nascent years. Peter Nowak’s gruff exterior may occasionally ruffle some feathers, but to hear the greatest player in the Union’s brief history claim, “I would rather to just retire than play for Peter again” is a gut-punch, especially considering its source. Sebastien Le Toux is no preening, posturing diva, but rather the lung-busting, hard-working, fully-committed embodiment of what Philadelphia fans want out of their players.
Now it is up to the Union to move on without their talisman striker, but there is no doubt his final words will echo in the minds of all who call PPL Park home. With the retirement of Veljko Paunovic, and Faryd Mondragon’s decision to return home to Colombia, the Union were already facing a glaring lack of veteran leadership entering 2012. Le Toux’s sale only widens that void, as he was a true leader by example on the pitch and role model for his young teammates at all times. To establish a young core of players around which to develop is one thing. Shedding wise, practiced veterans to leave inexperienced players to fend for themselves is entirely another.
For all that he means to the fans, the loyalty he showed the organization, and the example he set for his teammates, the Union will struggle to replace Sebastien Le Toux’s influence in 2012, regardless of what reinforcements the Union can acquire with the allocation money Vancouver gave for Le Toux.