As the Philadelphia Union prepare for their first-ever playoff game against Houston Dynamo on Sunday, much of the team’s hopes are pinned on the phenomenal form of its French No. 9, Sébastien Le Toux.
Le Toux has contributed 11 goals and nine assists to the Union’s historic push into the postseason, with 10 of those goals coming in the last 12 games. The 27-year-old has played every minute of every Union league game this season.
Already a legend among the Philadelphia faithful, this quiet, hard-working player was named MLS Player of the Month for September. Depending on the Union’s showing in the playoffs, he will surely be a hot contender for the league’s MVP award.
But in the midst of the build-up and the talk of individual awards, Le Toux’s feet stay firmly on the ground.
“It’s a team sport, not just me,” Le Toux told philadelphiaunion.com. “My teammates have done an amazing job the last month-and-a-half and it’s a credit to them stepping up along with me. It’s much better when your team is doing well. We have a better taste in our mouths because we are in the playoffs for the first time.”
Rewind the clock to a year ago: Philadelphia’s first season in MLS, the Union’s locker room became the American melting pot in microcosm. Polish team manager Peter Nowak had cast his net wide in the global marketplace to blend players from South America, Africa, and Europe with homegrown US talent. As MLS’s newest team struggled to find its collective feet, the quiet, industrious French playmaker was busy writing his name large into Philly sporting history.
Justin Kavanagh followed his progress through that difficult first season and traces the story of Sébastien Le Toux here in the first of four parts.
7.10.10: PPL Park Chester, PA:
Sébastien Le Toux spreads his palms wide and lifts his shoulders.
Another game is slipping away. Another 90 minutes of dominating play with precious little to show. The Philadelphia Union’s first season in Major League Soccer is descending into a weekly round of déjà vu for the Frenchman and his teammates.
You bust a gut in heat thick as treacle, force an early lead and then someone loses focus, and we’re all back where we began. Trooping back to the locker room, tied up at 1-1. Egalité again.
Danny Mwanga from the Democratic Republic of Congo has shown for the ball. The boy from the heart of Africa controls the long pass out of defense from his captain, the Californian Danny Califf. Shrugging off a San José defender, he shields it long enough for others to join the attack.
Fred, the prosaically named Brazilian, streaks right, screaming for the ball, while wide on the left, the distinctive purple shoes of Sébastien Le Toux blur in an angled sprint timed to beat the Earthquakes’ offside trap.
But Mwanga is a rookie, still learning that what happens off the ball is 90 percent of the game, still learning to play with his head up. The inexperienced forward is caught in several minds—maybe caught between several languages—and finally caught in possession.
The curses sound the same in any language.
The bronzed and shaven Brazilian head turns heavenward. Another lost chance. Another lung-burning run in 95 degrees for nothing. Way out left, the angular, intense-looking Frenchman turns and spreads his palms at the young striker in that questioning gesture of footballers everywhere. He sweeps a hand along the trajectory of the pass that never came. Mwanga acknowledges his mistake, miming apology with hands held up.
Seven years ago, a lifetime in the game, senior pros back in Lorient, Normandy, would likewise instruct the young Le Toux; but he knows that Mwanga, the modest, soft-spoken African has his ego too, so now he claps the teenager and gives him the thumbs-up. An artful mime of encouragement to lighten another lesson in frustration, in a season that’s been full of them.
Next time, Danny, eh?
In Philadelphia’s first season in MLS, Sébastien Le Toux has become the active ingredient in the glue holding together team manager Peter Nowak’s vision of the Union’s future.
As the Frenchman starts the long run back to his midfield position, the huge container ship MS Livingstone powers under the Commodore Barry Bridge carrying its cargo up the Delaware River. The Philadelphia team has pitched its impressive PPL Park home ground on the renovated waterfront in Chester. It stands beneath the dramatic arch of the bridge that connects Pennsylvania with New Jersey, America’s most densely populated state.
Chester’s rich shipbuilding history went south decades ago, and the boarded up houses downtown tell a familiar American story of urban decay and economic blight. Chester’s population is 78% African-American. The riverside city 20 miles south of Philly has invested heavily in hopes of an economic revival by hosting the Union. There’s a lot more than soccer glory riding on the shoulders’ of the Frenchman and his teammates.
The soccer stadium was opened in May 2010 with a $30 million commitment from the city, and $47 million from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On July 10th, halfway through the hottest summer in years, the crowd at PPL Park (capacity 18,500) is a vocal 17,183.
The following day 22 Europeans will contest the World Cup Final in Johannesburg, and once the last flights leave for Spain and Holland, South Africa will start to sweat about state-of-the-art stadiums becoming white elephants. In Chester, Pennsylvania, the future of the global game looks secure. The team is in good hands, too.
A break in the play, and water is thrown to the men in the sweat-soaked, blue-and-gold shirts. Nowak tells Le Toux to keep them focused, let the ball do the work, keep believing in each other.
Nowak knows all about the doubts that creep into teams, however experienced, from his own nomadic career as a player and coach. These players have been together a matter of months; fraternité is not easily coaxed from a ragtag gang of soccer wanderers, thrown together by the forces of 21st century globalization and hand-picked largely from the MLS draft; so the Pole usually turns to the man with the face of a Norman knight.
Nowak assembled a multinational cast since his appointment in September 2009. It reads like the crew of a Conrad sea novel: two Brazilians, a pair of Columbians, a Congolese teenager, a wily Argentine, a veteran Venezuelan, a Finn, and a hard-as-nails defender forged in Italy’s lower leagues, now returned to his country of birth. In their first season together, the First Mate was Danny Califf, the Californian with the Elvis quiff and sideburns, and arms filled with ink.
A glance through the names of the Union’s 14 homegrown players confirms the mix of ethnicities in America’s soccer stew: Sheanon Williams, Jack McInerney, Kyle Nakazawa, Amobi Okugo, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Nick Zimmerman…
This mish-mash of nationalities will eventually meld, Nowak believes, because soccer is the Esperanto of our technological, entertainment-driven era. Everyone speaks the basics. The differences of styles between Americans, South Americans, and Europeans are merely dialects to be accommodated as the club from the City of Brotherly Love finds its voice.
Few have LeToux’s natural fluency. Of the players at his disposal, the team manager relied on Le Toux to do much of the on-field communication in a difficult debut season in MLS. The Frenchman was asked to play as a twin striker, in midfield, wide on both flanks to pull defenses out of position, and as a playmaker, pulling the strings. He was the one Nowak called aside with instructions to drop back or push forward, to link midfield with attack. The intelligent 26-year old connected the dots. He was the draftsman tasked with sketching out Philly’s Pythagorean diagrams of time and space and movement. When it goes wrong, when synapses misfire, much of the frustration weighs heavily on the Frenchman’s slim shoulders.
He has carried the city’s weighty expectations well, on the field and off. Trim as a welterweight fighter, and with a quiet, unassuming personality, Le Toux distinguished himself in a challenging first season. He lead the team in goal scoring with 14 league strikes, and was in the running for the MLS Most Valuable Player award, despite the team’s failure to make the playoffs. With his air of understated, unrelenting professionalism, the Frenchman was poise personified.
Sébastien Le Toux belongs to soccer’s worldwide network of nomadic professionals, often accused of lacking loyalty. Fans assume a mercenary desire to chase bigger contracts in a short career is the norm. In a grueling first season in Philadelphia, there may have been times when the man from Mont-Saint-Aignan could well have asked himself, “How the hell did I end up here?” But the mark he has made among the Philly fans has been deep and lasting.
Philadelphia demands a lot of its heroes. This is the town where Santa was once snowballed at a ballgame, where even Elvis was greeted with a shower of eggs by a carefully coordinated posse of convent girls. But the man in the purple shoes has won over skeptics by defying the French stereotype of sulking French strikers like Nicolas Anelka.
The Union’s Sons of Ben fan brigade were left with no doubts about Le Toux’s commitment. A banner hung at the River End of PPL Park in the red, white, and blue of the French tricolor:
Quitting is not part of Le Toux’s DNA. He is a man who lives in the moment, who looks forward rather than back. When his time in Philly is up, he will leave a lasting legacy. He certainly will not quit. And he will regret rien.
Part two will follow tomorrow, Friday, Oct. 28.