Vice President Biden greets Sébastien Le Toux, April 2010
Since signing Sébastien Le Toux from the Seattle Sounders in January 2010, Philadelphia Union’s team manager Peter Nowak has helped the Frenchman produce the finest football of his career. Le Toux reflects the Pole’s work ethic and commitment on the field, and his route to MLS has echoes of Nowak’s own international soccer odyssey.
Rewind the clock to a year ago: Philadelphia’s first season in MLS.
Justin Kavanagh followed the team’s progress through that difficult first season and traces the story of Sébastien Le Toux here in the third of four parts.
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
April 10, 2010
It’s a strange day at the ballpark.
The Philadelphia Union is playing its first-ever home game. But they’re in another team’s home. And their team manager will not be sitting on the home bench.
For Sébastien Le Toux, what matters more than this historic game is this morning’s plane crash in Russia. Among the dead are Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and many dignitaries. The Frenchman has Polish ancestry, but more importantly, he wants to do something special for Peter Nowak, the Pole whose faith in his abilities brought him here. Today, Nowak will watch from a private box, in mourning for friends lost in the tragedy in faraway Smolensk.
Lincoln Financial Field is the winter nest of the Philadelphia Eagles American football team. This neo-industrial coliseum towers over I-95, the main traffic artery connecting New York, Philly and Washington. The open north stand gives a dramatic sweep of the city’s skyline, its office towers striving skywards like bar-charts; across the highway lies the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Productivity boomed here during World War II before the yard closed in 1995 with the wane of America’s industrial age.
Little manufacturing remains now in Philly. The old JFK and Veterans Stadiums, once filled with blue-collar workers, on the sites where Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park now stand. The US age of entertainment has made sports the pastime mainly of the moneyed classes.
The Rocky statue resided down here for a while, banished controversially from its original site atop the Art Museum steps. Statues of working class heroes prevailing against all odds are fine for Hollywood, but some in the Philadelphia arts community resented their steps being clogged with tourists.
Yet rags-to-riches dreams die hard: those in need of a little inspiration still flocked uptown to run the steps and strike the fictional hero’s arms-aloft pose. So the bronze Rocky moved back uptown, where he stands now, still undefeated, now at the bottom of the steps. Philly fans are a tough crowd, but they see nothing wrong with casting their sporting heroes as works of art.
As the Union’s new field of dreams is still unfinished 20 miles down the Delaware River, the Sons of Ben—the Union’s fan club—march today to the Linc. The guest of honor is Vice-President Joe Biden who takes the ceremonial “first kick”. Thankfully, the VP performs his ceremonial duty with more panache than Diana Ross’ infamous miss from five feet at the start of the 1994 World Cup.
The fans, who formed their fan club years before they had a team, expect a day for the ages. Fate has decreed that today’s opponents are DC United, the team Nowak coached to an MLS Championship in 2004.
Biden and Nowak are barely in their seats when the number 9 in the purple soccer shoes lights up the stadium with a clever run and nod-in at the near post. The cross is delivered by the 19-year old Columbian Roger Torres, and its precision and weight hints at a left-footed genius.
The Frenchman again shows vision and poise as he ghosts behind the defense in the 39th minute to control with a light first touch before finishing sharply from the edge of the box.
In the 79th minute, the Union wins a free-kick just outside the DC area. The electricity is tangible. As Le Toux waits over the dead ball, a sense of fateful inevitability buzzes through the crowd of 34,870. The kick is struck low and hard around the wall and the hat-trick is complete. It’s the stuff of fantasy: the name Sébastien Le Toux is already immortalized in Philly soccer history.
Minutes after the game ends, adrenaline still pumping, he politely corrects the American TV presenter as she lauds him on air for his “two goals.”
"Three. I scored three goals."
He is calm, matter-of-fact, about his heroics in the Union’s first home game. What went through his mind as he stood poised to take the free kick, with 12 minutes left and the score at 2-2? The answer is delivered without ego: he speaks about the ball, the technique, rather than about himself or his emotions. He is a man in complete command of his technique. Honed by hours of practice.
"You just want to hit it right. I knew this kind of ball would fly straight in the heat if I hit it hard and low. Today, we were thinking of Peter Nowak and hopefully what we’ve done will lift his spirits."
Later in the season, the manager would acknowledge how the Frenchman’s presence has lifted everyone’s spirits, everyone’s game: "Sébastien is the one who keeps us all on our toes."
Their partnership began with a phone call from Philadelphia across America’s four time zones in January 2010: it’s 6 a.m. in Seattle and the Frenchman is sound asleep.
The Eastern European voice apologizes. He’s on the East Coast and he’ll call back at 9. It’s the day of the MLS Expansion Draft, so this means just one thing for the Frenchman. Seattle haven’t protected him. He’s up for grabs. He’ll be packing his bags again soon. The man with the un-American accent calls back at nine sharp, and tells him what he wants to build in Philly: "He said he’d followed me since I arrived in 2007. He knew my abilities and explained in detail how he wanted to play me. I was sad to leave Seattle, of course, but that’s the life. The supporters held a farewell party, which I really appreciated, and I was on my way."
Rennes. Lorient. Seattle. Now Philadelphia. Another town, another team, but this was Nowak’s team, and Le Toux was certain that his development would not stagnate. Seattle had used him sporadically, often playing him out of position. Nowak assured him he was an integral part of his plans.
"Peter Nowak is a convincing man. He knows what he wants. And he’s done it all."
Nowak’s own journey began in Pabianice, Poland, caged within the old Iron Curtain. The boy known as Piotr realized early that soccer was his passport to the West. He nurtured his dreams, practicing English by mimicking the Radio Luxemburg DJs (when the government hadn’t blocked the signal), and scanned the skies for the planes that flew from East to West: "I would get up at 6 a.m. to travel one-and-a-half hours to training. From the tram, I’d see those planes and think ‘One day I’m going to be on one of them.'"
Nowak remembers money arriving hidden in cakes or in packages of sugar and meat, sent by relatives in the former West Germany or Chicago: "We lived in hard times, but my mother made every sacrifice to see that I was fed right. She would get up at 8 a.m. to stand in line for hours with a government voucher just so I had an orange to bring with me to training."
Nowak fulfilled his soccer dreams, leaving his homeland in 1990 to play in Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, and the US, where he became the first man to win MLS titles as both player and coach. In 2005 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
Sir Alex Ferguson is not the only knight in football management.
Le Toux’s journey had a smoother start, but he too was a child of the modern era of mass movement. Like over three percent of the global population—more than 200 million people—he opted to pursue his dreams outside his country of birth.
His family was familiar with broadening horizons: his grandfather was a fisherman, and his father worked on ferries that plied the Atlantic coastline to Spain. The Le Toux men were frequently away for weeks at a time. When home, they’d spent hours fixing nets. Sébastien smiles at the memories. In his own way, the Union’s top scorer has continued the family fixation with travel and nets.
The young Sébastien always looked ahead, working towards getting to where he felt he should be. He remembers being five or six and accompanying his mother to the dance classes she gave in the community center of their small town outside Rennes. He liked the exercise, but the room was full of little girls and he didn’t belong. He learned how to “make a choreography” and it did wonders for his flexibility, but it smelled a little too much of soap and perfume. He had a word with maman, and was soon traveling to a nearby town to play football with the boys. "My parents gave me good genetics to work hard physically, run hard, and get fit. At 15, I knew I wanted to become a professional."
His hard work paid off with a soccer scholarship at Rennes, where he attended the academy, sleeping in a dorm, but schoolwork came second when you had to train twice a day. At 16, he started to get noticed and made the A team. As in many European clubs, local teachers then worked around the player’s schedule. He signed a three-year contract option at 17 and his professional path was set.
"The last year I started to train with the pros that I’d watched since I was 13. I was nervous, sure. But I learned a lot. I got an elbow injury just when the contracts were being signed, so I didn’t get picked up. I was disappointed, but you just move on, and I moved on to Lorient."
After two years, Lorient gained promotion to Ligue 1 and Le Toux was out of contract again. Then came the agent offering a trial at FC Dallas. He flew to Texas for a game that resembled a playground free-for-all among total strangers.
It was every man for himself. You just tried to get on the ball and show your skills.
Dallas passed on the French defender, as he was then, and three years later he is still reminded of his “DALLAS REE-JECT” status by jeering Texans in Frisco’s Pizza Hut Park. When asked about this, Le Toux greets the twin imposters of success and failure with the same wry smile and Gallic shrug…
C’est la vie.
His agent arranged another trial, in Seattle, and he signed for the Sounders, then of the USL First Division in early 2007. He scored 10 goals in 2007, and ended as the league’s joint top scorer. In 2008, Le Toux became the first player signed by the Sounders following their expansion into Major League Soccer.
He’s made a habit of firsts in America: scorer of the first competitive goal for the Union (and the second and third, but as the TV woman may have said, who's counting?). He then wrote his legend into PPL Park folklore as the Union’s first scorer there—a penalty against Seattle. He was Philadelphia Union’s first All-Star.
Yet, with the help of a certain German, there’s another more remarkable first he might still attain: the first French national to represent the US.
Le Toux has never represented his country of birth at any age or level. On August 5, 2010, after working three years in America, he received a Green Card, making him a permanent resident.
In the summer of 2010, debates about the role of the immigrant raged in Le Toux’s homeland and his adopted homeland. A new law in Arizona was alleged to facilitate racial profiling. Then there was the contrived controversy of the “Ground Zero mosque". As America’s polarized media whipped up these screaming matches, the Frenchman quietly became a local hero in Philadelphia, where few cared where he was from, what church he attended or which way he voted. Should he opt to represent the USA, there will be none of the soul-searching occasioned by the naturalization of players in Germany, England, or indeed France.
Le Toux speaks warmly of his debt to his adapted homeland: "Of course I am proud to be French, but America has been very kind to me, and I would be proud to represent the US." He is as patriotic as the next Frenchman, so he spent June 2010 in a funk watching the extraordinary meltdown of Les Bleus at the World Cup in South Africa. "I only saw what you saw on TV but yes, it was a disgrace."
The talented French squad alienated compatriots from the start. Their choice of luxury hotel was criticized by France’s Sports Minister as inappropriate for representatives of a country reeling from recession.
A long-standing resentment among certain players of coach Raymond Domenech boiled over at half-time against Mexico and full-scale mutiny erupted when the squad refused to train for their final game.
The fallout went all the way to the President of the Republic, who summoned Thierry Henry and others for an explanation. The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, a critic of the country’s failures of assimilation, drew his own conclusions: “We now have proof that the French team is not a team at all, but a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia.” The players’ detached mentality was even compared to that of rioters in the banlieues.
The poster boy for this lost generation—and recipient of an unprecedented 18-game ban—was Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka, who was pictured in hooded attire, with earphones drowning out the annoying questions of reporters. Isolated in a cocoon of wealth and privilege, the striker seemed to deem himself above reproach, above any responsibility.
It was a long way from 1998, when Zinedine Zidanes’s image was projected on the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate France’s multicultural World Cup winners. Is there a more potent symbol of the immigrant made good in modern sport?
Le Toux, it seemed, was the anti-Anelka. Throughout the long, hot summer of 2010, he was easy to find after every home game: still pitch-side, still standing in his sweats an hour after the final whistle, still unshowered, greeting long lines of fans. He signed autographs with an easy diplomacy, and posed graciously for photos regardless of the day’s result or his own performance.
"Why do I do it? It’s no trouble, it’s a small thing we can do. If we cannot win, we can at least give people something positive to take home."
The French immigrant, l’etranger, was winning over Philadelphia, one happy fan at a time.
He checked the spelling of Lauren’s name before signing.
"Yes, L-A-U-R-E-N…but it sounds so much nicer the way you say it."
The fourth and final part of Sébastien Le Toux’s story will follow tomorrow, Sunday Oct. 30.