Featured / Union

Zeno’s traveler: The case against Sebastien Le Toux

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

Ah, nostalgia. Remember when we were young and innocent and our heroes were unimpeachable? When your favorite player stayed on your favorite team his or her whole career, and the color commentator was still a shiny set of teeth, but at least they made sense 20 percent of the time?

Yeah, I remember what the 2011 Philadelphia Union season felt like too.

Boy, would it be nice to have that feeling back. And nothing represents that feeling more than a star goalscorer who all but declared the City of Brotherly Love his final athletic resting place.

Zeno’s traveler

Zeno’s paradox is this: If the traveler always moves half the distance towards his goal, he will always be approaching it but will never reach it. It feels good to move toward your goal. Getting closer and closer, you feel a sense of achievement. But you never reach that ultimate goal. With the Flyin’ Frenchman up top, the Philadelphia Union were a good team that appeared to be approaching the MLS elite. Results after his departure could be interpreted as evidence for how much the Union need him.

Or the results could show that Le Toux imposed restrictions on the Union that meant he could only take them as far as Zeno’s traveler: Close to the goal, but never reaching it.

What was he?

Seba Le Toux was everything a franchise player should be: He embraced his role as team representative to the fans, and he let his play speak for his devotion to the club and city. When the Union brass unceremoniously ousted him from the roster—and let’s remember that as delightful as it is to imagine Peter Nowak was alone in his hollowed-out volcano of evil, Nick Sakiewicz dutifully backed him until the day he scapegoated him—much of Le Toux’s distress was focused on how he was leaving a place that he was ready to unreservedly call home. He thought he was an integral piece of the longer-term project in Philadelphia (and for a cut-rate price, maybe he would have been), but instead he was shipped out, a head on a pole to warn other restless generals (hey, DC4!) about stepping out of line.

And, as fate would have it, a year later the Philadelphia Union need a goalscorer and Sebastien Le Toux needs a team. A marriage made in the same place the cheesesteak was invented, right?

Wrong.

The Awkward Departure exposed the strategic argument

For all of 2010 and half of 2011, the Union treated Le Toux like a top goalscorer. He played up front every game, and he often produced. But the pay didn’t match the play. Le Toux wanted the money to match his production, which assumed the production would continue.

Since he left the Union, Le Toux has been played out of position. But he was first given a chance to produce in Vancouver.

And he did not.

In fact, the only time Le Toux has produced at a high level is when his team has backed him with a shambolic offense. Remember all that standout midfield play in 2010? And 2011? A strong argument could be made that relying on Sebastien Le Toux is as close as real sports gets to running the Hail Mary over and over in videogame football. It’s not that it won’t work, but it’s also not likely to take you to new heights.

Yes, the most awkward part of Sebastien Le Toux’s departure may not be the ugly verbal exchanges that exposed the seedy underbelly inside the Union front office (surprisingly, a ticklish underbelly in Peter Nowak’s case), but the way it showed what the Philadelphia Union really were: An unfocused team that understood each other on the field about as well as NHL owners understand their fans.

Without Le Toux’s relentless ball chasing to bail them out, it became clear just how far the Philadelphia Union were from being an elite ball-control team. Given how much Nowak stressed ball control in his press conferences, it should have been ironic. But really it just felt depressing.

So the answer here is clear, right? Bring back Seba, bring back the goals! And… bring back an over-reliance on the Hail Mary? The Union were carried to the playoffs by an elite defense. Anything less and they are a middle-of-the-pack team. This past season showed off the potential coming up through the Union’s ranks. Michael Farfan, Amobi Okugo, Cristhian Hernandez, Zack Pfeffer, and Jimmy McLaughlin are creative players who want the ball at their feet. The Union’s future is more dynamic than what Sebastien Le Toux has to offer.

It is no mystery why Antoine Hoppenot’s style of play fits the Union well; he plays a Le Toux-patterned, high-octane game. And while it may be a game the Union can use, it’s not one they should rely on for 90 minutes in 2013.

At least when it comes to an everyday striker.

Sub him in?

Would Le Toux accept a supporting role? Will he be Brian Ching four or five years before Ching became what he is now? All signs point to no. Le Toux is still a 90 minute player, and there are teams that should value his skill set as a starter. At age 28, Sebastien Le Toux should—and likely is—looking to be on the pitch.

Giving him a reduced role would not only put him in the awkward position of backing up former backup Jack McInerney, it would also put McInerney under unbelievable amounts of pressure. Imagine if you had just taken over as color commentator of the Philadelphia Union and Bob Rigby was hired as your backup! Maybe that’s a bad analogy…

Leading from behind

There is no doubting Sebastien Le Toux’s leadership abilities. During his time in Philly, he led with his play and with his attitude. If he returned, his role would be different. Supporting Jack McInerney and Michael Farfan, adjusting to the flow of play, and fashioning himself into—gasp—more of a Carlos Ruiz-type player than a Sebastien Le Toux.

Bring him back?

So did Le Toux have a down 2012 because he was played out of position? Or was it also because he only excels in a specific, vertical system?

Did Seba’s departure show that the Union need to bring him back, or did it show that, as an offensive fixation point, he was blunting the team’s development?

Both questions can be argued either way.

The best argument for bringing back Le Toux may be symbolic: It really would go some ways toward bridging the gap between the front office and fans.

The best argument against bringing back Le Toux is less existential: The Union need a finisher. Not a hard-working runner (Jack… Antoine…), but an out-and-out, box-sitting poacher.

Leave the money aside: If the Union want to compete, they need to buy goals for the present, and a mentor for the future. Le Toux wants minutes and a certain role.

The Philadelphia Union are not right for Sebastien Le Toux. And Sebastien Le Toux is no longer right for the Philadelphia Union.

 

20 Comments

  1. truth.

  2. I’m not convinced, Adam. Your argument is sound, but I’m not sure I buy it. For one thing, who’s to say that a swift vertical style (not long-ball, but direct passing) wouldn’t suit Le Toux and the rest of the Union down to the ground? Think of our fullbacks, Sheanon and Raymon and their direct running and how often it has driven our offense (in a good way). Some verticality might benefit Jack Mac, not crowd him out. But then, I’m a Le Toux loyalist.

  3. The solution to our striker problem is obvious.
    Tebow.

  4. Le Toux’s numbers should speak for themselves. The fact that they are debatable in any forum is shambolic. Soccer is a game of intricacies and rarely does a team that demonstrates poor offensive principals yield a legitimate scorer. Find a team as bad as our 2010 Union that had a 14 goal scorer. I’m still waiting. And if Le Toux was thriving off of a purely vertical system of chasing long balls then how in the hell did he also register 11 assists on a team devoid of finishers? I sometimes wonder who actually watches the matches and who believes every slight bit of football analysis they read. Seba is a talented footballer and he absolutely does love our squad and our mentality. If re-signed he would be no second to Jack; the two could absolutely work in tandem.
    I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here, but they play markedly different games. Jack is a CENTER FORWARD. Le Toux is not and never has been. With Union Jack in the center and Le Toux running off the right or the left from an advanced position who knows how many times we might doop.
    If you would rather have Hassli or Koevermans fine I get it. Will they go for 90 every game while not fouling and not getting hurt for 34 games? Will they produce 25 goals and 20 assists in two MLS seasons? If you think they will good on ya, I patently disagree,

    • Do you want only MLS strikers, or are we looking for anyone on a bad team who has hit Le Toux-like numbers? Yakubu had 17 goals for Blackburn last year when they were far, far, far, far, far, far worse than most MLS teams. If you want to stay on this side of the Atlantic, what about Saer Sene’s 11 goals and 3 assists in 1934 minutes? That’s a point every 138, which isn’t close to Le Toux’s MVP caliber 2010, but much better than his point every 153 minutes in 2011. So basically, nobody will dispute an MVP-level 2010. But beyond that, it’s pretty easy to find equivalent production. And I’m not sure why a vertical system would prevent a striker from earning assists. I’ve always assumed that’s why Peter Crouch exists…

      I agree with you. With Jack in the center and Le Toux running off him, who knows how many times we might doop. Not me and not you. That’s exactly why we are having this discussion… so good point.

      And finally, numbers don’t speak for themselves. If they did we wouldn’t need descriptive OR inferential statistics. Numbers might have a louder voice in individual sports like golf, but they are relatively quiet (note I don’t say worthless by any stretch, so callllm down) in soccer because it’s such a team game. This is why the statistics revolution has been slower to hit soccer than other sports.

      • When I read, “Find a team as bad as the 2010 Union with a goal scorer comparable to Le Toux.” my first thought was Saer Sene.

      • Le Toux played midfield for the first half of 2011, so of course his goal production dropped off. The 2nd half numbers of 2011 are comparable to 2010 though.

    • Would I rather have Hassli or Koevermans? No, especially not with their current salaries. There are plenty of talented, relatively inexpensive forwards out there.

      Will they go 90 every game and not get hurt? I don’t know. Then again, who does? While some players are more susceptible to injury, any player can get hurt at any time.

      Will they produce 25 goals and 20 assists in two MLS seasons? Who’s to say they won’t. In 2010, Chris Wondolowski scored more than double the number of goals he scored in his first five years combined. No one saw that coming. Sebastien Le Toux scored just 6 goals in MLS playing for teams other than the Union (2009 Seattle, 2012 Vancouver, 2012 NY). Does that mean he’ll score more if he plays for the Union again? Maybe. Maybe not. If you think he will, good on ya.

    • James Korman says:

      Totally agree.

  5. ^ this guy gets it

  6. I agree. No one is trying to talk down his accomplishments, all this is is our goal going forward vs. what Le Toux brings. Everyone loves to look at his numbers, but we easily forget the troubles he had during years, his stone touches, and all the PKs he scored.
    This team, with players like Farfan and Okugo and Torres, who are great on the ball and are more than capable of picking out the pass, need more than someone who plays best when the ball is punted into the corner.
    I am also not sure where Jack being a center forward comes from. His #1 strength all year was making runs, stretching defenses and finding space. Now all of a sudden he is a CF and we need LT to do what Jack did so well (as a 20 year old) all year?
    It just seems so clear what kind of complimentary striker we need for Jack as well as the rest of the team (ie, size). So lets find someone based on what this team lacks, instead with LT we are bringing back the old and trying to fit him into the team all over again.

  7. Hack and the Union have to decide. Are they a defensive team that bangs long balls forward and hopes for the best? Or are they a team that wants to keep possession and play through the midfield.

    If they want to be Stoke City, they should sign LeToux, get rid of all these young, small, small-ballers, and add some size and experience to the team, Houston-style.

    If they are trying to be Barca (I’d settle for Swansea) and play the ball via the Farfans, Okugo, Hernandez, Pfeffer, etc., LeToux makes no soccer sense.

  8. “Cristhian Hernandez, Zack Pfeffer, and Jimmy McLaughlin are creative players who want the ball at their feet. The Union’s future is more dynamic than what Sebastien Le Toux has to offer.”

    Which future are you referring to, 2013 or 2016? If you think any of those players offer this team more than LeToux this season, you’re really mistaken. Maybe 2 or 3 years from now one of them will develop into a goal scorer, but it isn’t today. I’ll spot you Hoffman and Torres too, still would take the proven 90 minute commodity in SLT over the kids. Unless of course you believe that not only can the Union develop youth, but they drafted talent in the first place AND they can hold on to said talent AND that can happen in the near term to prevent this team from becoming a laughingstock. I think the probabilities point to your solution being the traveler’s paradox. I don’t think we’d get any closer to the goal, and may not move at all.

    • @Scotty – I totally get what you’re saying. And I’m not suggesting that any of those guys change the team’s fortunes in 2013. What I mean to suggest is that the Union should build for 2016, which means not playing 2010 ball in 2013. Does that make sense? And my argument about Le Toux was that if you are building for a certain type of possession-oriented team, you want to focus on strikers that fit/can teach the young guys to fit that mold. And that isn’t Le Toux.

  9. I don’t think one really needs to carefully evaluate playing style of the player vs. the team. LeToux is a good player and he can definitely help the Union. He would totally be worth ~$200K/season, but he probably isn’t worth too much more than that unfortunately.

  10. “The best argument against bringing back Le Toux is less existential: The Union need a finisher.”
    -
    Hmmm…I’d argue that this is the BEST argument to bring him back. Look at the stats. Le Toux scores goals when he plays striker. I understand he does not look the part of a hulking 6’4 240lb target guy, but if he scores goals does that really matter?
    -
    Also, when/how was it determined that Le Toux would not thrive is a possession-oriented office?

  11. I think we’re all putting too much faith in Jac Mac. I love the kid, but for every poacher finish he had, he had at least two botched 1v1 situations and missed opportunities to create chances for himself. The problem with both JacMac and Seba is that they both performed when they were the only option. It is every striker’s dream to be the only one getting the through balls. Pair up Seba with Henry and Cooper and you see him for what he is. I’m pretty sure JacMac would fair even worse in that situation. We need a serious goal scorer with the ability to create for himself. That costs money. Hoffman is actually in my mind the one with the highest upside in this regard- not JacMac.

  12. The Black Hand says:

    Jack Mac and Sebastien Le Toux are not answers, to our striking woes.

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