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 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?
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.