Photo: Paul Rudderow
Sebastien Le Toux is still not a midfielder.
Everyone around the league is talking about his league-leading assist total, but they’re missing the true revelation about his on-field play:
Le Toux has become a set piece maestro.
Seven of Le Toux’s 12 assists have come from set pieces. An eighth came on a cross sent in immediately after one of his corner kicks rebounded to him.
Le Toux’s improvement on set pieces has been a revelation. Those who followed him during his first Union tenure know his fatal flaw was his inaccurate set pieces, which he continued to take despite his teammates’ superior service. Today, that seems like a distant memory. His corners have consistently found their targets. His free kicks have been cleverly placed. Remember his perfectly lofted free kick that put Jack McInerney in for a game-winning goal against Chicago in May? Or how about his coordination of the indirect kick that beat Chivas USA?
Le Toux’s set piece brilliance this season is a testament to his ability to simply work hard and improve.
The recipients of those assists deserve credit too. For the Union’s first three seasons, they were typically one of the league’s shortest teams. They aren’t much taller now, but the bodies they throw forward have different qualities. Amobi Okugo has become a monster in the box, timing his leaps perfectly as he hones in on Le Toux’s kicks like an anti-ballistic missile striking its target. Conor Casey is an immovable bull who establishes and holds great position in the defensive china shop and flicks headers toward goal with unparalleled accuracy and power. Jack McInerney finds openings near goal like few others. Sheanon Williams just wills himself into position to fight for plays in the box.
The auxiliary forward
But that brings us back to the core point: Le Toux is still not a midfielder. His ball-handling is not sufficient to regularly hold possession while under pressure, and he can’t break a defender down off the dribble like Michael Farfan can.
Philly’s Frenchman functions best when he gets the ball with space in front of him, doesn’t have to take too many touches, and can focus on providing great service or shooting on goal.
Le Toux ranks third in the league in accurate crosses per game (2.3), behind only Brad Davis and Graham Zusi, and fifth in key passes per game. (Key passes are passes that lead directly to shots.)
His excellent passing ability in the final third didn’t suddenly emerge with his move to midfield. He assisted on 20 goals during his first two years with the Union, when he played striker.
Le Toux has operated best this season as an auxiliary forward who can also get wide to send in crosses. This was never clearer than in Saturday’s win over D.C. United, when he lined up at left midfield but often slid inside as a left forward. In that role, he found space in the box to flick a header toward Casey for one goal and set up Fabinho’s cross from a more central position for the other goal.
As Union manager John Hackworth has experimented with ways to get Casey, McInerney and Le Toux on the field together, a challenge has been figuring out where Le Toux fits best. McInerney is a poacher, Casey is the prototypical target man, and Le Toux is the tireless roamer with great passing vision. Hackworth has tried Le Toux on both flanks, where the Frenchman has decent but not spectacular when functioning as a true midfielder.
The trick is finding the best lineup in which Le Toux can function as a hybrid midfielder/forward, not pulled too far out of his striker comfort zone but providing just enough support for the midfield and space for Casey and McInerney.
To do that in the Union’s (ostensible) 4-1-3-2 formation, the Union need an out-and-out wide midfielder opposite Le Toux to support the possession game and make life easier on the center attacking midfielder. (An attacking left back also helps provide width if Le Toux is deployed on the left and cuts inside often.) More often than not, that wide midfielder has been Danny Cruz.
As has been well-documented, Cruz is more of a long ball threat and plays little role in the Union’s possession game. Among MLS regulars, Cruz ranks 210th in attempted passes per game (18.5), not including crosses. The only regular starting midfielders with lower rates are Fabian Castillo of Dallas (15.7) and Chicago’s Dilly Duka (15.3), and Cruz averages significantly more minutes (67.1) than Castillo (57.4) or Duka (55.7). (A better stat would be the minutes-to-pass ratio. Cruz appears to be last among starting MLS midfielders in that ratio, attempting one pass per 3.63 minutes, but I haven’t seen league-wide rankings for that stat.)
When deployed together, Cruz and Le Toux essentially turn the Union formation into a 4-2-4 of sorts. (That’s an oversimplification; see here for a better explanation.) This adds pressure on the central attacking midfielder and forces Casey and McInerney to come deeper into the midfield to find the ball more often. Hence, the Union often cede possession, relying on Le Toux’s set pieces and quick strikes and counterattacks from their excellent forward corps instead of buildup from midfield.
If Le Toux can be effective as a left midfielder/forward, it opens the right side for the return of Michael Farfan, who showed once again Saturday that he is the Union’s best right midfielder and should be moved back to his natural position. Compare Farfan’s performance with that of Cruz on Saturday:
- Farfan completed 11 passes, including one cross, in 21 minutes (plus stoppage time).
- Cruz completed 13 passes, including one cross, in 69 minutes.
That brings us back to Cruz, of course, and Hackworth has shown no indication he will take the hard-nosed but often ineffective winger out of the starting lineup. But this column isn’t about Cruz.
It’s about Le Toux. Despite outside misconceptions, Le Toux hasn’t reinvented himself as a midfielder. He has simply revealed himself as what he always was: A dedicated, hard-working, good soccer player who will put in the effort to make himself and his team better.
Random Union notes
- Keon Daniel started both goal sequences. Watch here and here. He also completed 51 of 54 passes. Unlike in many of his games, he sent many of those passes forward. Solid game.
- Conor Casey and Le Toux are the Comeback Player[s] of the Year for MLS. Really, it’s a toss-up between them. Le Toux probably won’t get considered, but he should be after what he endured last season.
- Casey has scored 7 goals in his last 9 games. He could be a dark horse MVP candidate if he continues at this level of play.
- D.C. United is moving in the right direction with some of their recent signings. This time next year, they could be a good team again if they can clear the dead weight off their salary budget (Dejan Jakovic, etc.). A good United is good for the Union, because it makes the Union’s best and most intense rivalry even better.
- Fabinho and Gilberto are making about $80,000 apiece their first season with the Union, according to figures recently released by the MLS Players Union. That’s not breaking the bank, but it’s more than you’d expect for washouts from the A-League and Brazil’s second division. If the Union were smart — and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt — they signed each to six-month deals, with the Union holding options on renewing the contracts for subsequent years.
- Oka Nikolov came in at the league minimum salary. He’s a bargain.