As the Philadelphia Union enter the MLS playoffs for the first time in their history, Sébastien Le Toux has once again made himself a strong candidate for the league’s MVP award.
Rewind the clock to a year ago: Philadelphia’s first season in MLS. As team manager Peter Nowak blended homegrown US talent with players from South America, Africa and Europe. The never-say-die spirit of the Union, and of Philadelphia itself, was embodied by the team’s hardworking Frenchman.
Justin Kavanagh followed the team’s progress through that difficult first season and traces the story of Sébastien Le Toux here in the final of four parts.
8.14.10: PPL Park, Chester, PA: Philadelphia Union v Colorado Rapids
Those purple shoes are dancing again.
It’s the 92nd minute. It’s 1-1. Do or die time. Earlier, Sébastien Le Toux had set up Danny Mwanga with another masterly assist, the second time in a week the Congolese striker had scored off the Frenchman’s vision.
Now, Le Toux is going for broke. The ball on his toes, he splits Colorado Rapids Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor and is clearly clipped by Moor. A nailed-on penalty!
This is it. Pick yourself up. Stay calm, and stroke home the winner.
But there’s no whistle.
Nothing given. Le Toux’s face freezes in a mask of openmouthed amazement. Referee Terry Vaughn waves play on and blows full-time moments later. Cue one almighty row.
Colorado’s English coach Gary Smith suggests that the Frenchman “might have gone down a bit easy.”
Peter Nowak is irate with yet another bad refereeing decision.
Sébastien is the last guy that’s going to dive on a play like that.
I go to find the victim of this injustice in the Philly locker room. Frustration and disappointment shroud the place, muting the mood of young men facing into a Saturday night. A humid cloud of sweat rises from the communal basket of mud-stained synthetics. A hint of fresher fragrances from masculine shampoos and after-shaves drifts in on citrus-tinged vapors from the showers.
Le Toux’s stylish, square-toed loafers still await his famous feet. He takes a US nine-and-a-half, French size 43, UK size eight-and-a-half. Later, he’ll leave this room with a stack of trademark purple soccer shoes piled high in his arms to take to a local youth club.
The Latino players pause beneath the TV, checking out Thierry Henry’s first game for New York against the LA Galaxy, still without the injured Beckham. The banter starts to bubble when LA score.
One figure keeps his own counsel. The young man with the slightest frame on the team shuffles by in a hooded bathrobe. His demeanor is quiet and watchful: a respectful novice in a room of older pros. The nameplate on his locker says Roger Torres, the same Colombian chico who dictates play with such a skillful confidence way beyond his 19 years. He sits in silence, then answers a reporter’s questions in a polite, thoughtful voice. Some people prefer to express themselves with their feet.
Bobby Charlton, the Manchester United legend, said he wished he could talk the way he played. Real life made him feel inarticulate.
It’s now an hour after full-time: Where the hell is Le Toux?
I wander outside to the empty field, and naturally, there he is, signing one more picture, grinning for one more photo, arms around a stranger. He shakes his head at the ref’s call and convinces me that yes, he was taken down. Then he turns back and leaves another digital image of himself in the memory bank of a fan’s camera, another pixelated version of his 26-year-old self that will live on down the decades, one of thousands now banked for posterity.
What else will he leave? His match shirt tonight is promised to someone who has been to all the games, a girl who asks him for it week after week. Sweat-soaked shirts and boots with the Frenchman’s DNA proliferate weekly across the greater Philadelphia area. But he wants a legacy deeper than fleeting fame.
Le Toux started an academy (www.frenchsocceracademy.com) in Seattle with his friend and former personal coach, Mikael Kerleau-Idrissi. The pair now plan to start open a branch in Philadelphia and another in France, so that young hopefuls can benefit from his trans-Atlantic experience.
I was not really predestined to be a soccer player. I just tried to live my dream, tried to work on it every day. The mental aspect of believing in what you do is so important. So I try to help those who want to do the same. To help others decide on what they want to do in their life, whether that’s being a soccer player or an architect.
Fine words, but he walks the walk. At times this season, Le Toux’s ability to focus has demonstrated a mentality of steely resolve and focus.
07.17.2010 PPL Park, Chester, PA: Philadelphia Union v Toronto FC
It’s 1-1 in the 92nd minute when a penalty at the River End gives the Union the chance of all three points. The Frenchman steps forward, but he must hold his nerve for three agonizing minutes as the practiced protests and delaying tactics of Toronto players are choreographed to pile the pressure on. They step over the ball, they walk in front him, they wish him well.
No pressure, Séba!
Just breathe deep. Strike it true. Top right. You’ve done it a hundred times. Top right. This is what I’m paid to do. Concentrate. Top right. Focus.
The ball obeys the practiced right foot. High and right and home. Le Toux sprints off to accept the waves of acclaim pouring down from the River End. Another part of this man’s quiet, intense spirit is written into the first-season history of the blue and gold shirt.
The Philadelphia fans, whose support has been loud and consistent regardless of results throughout a difficult debut season, have a hero they deserve. He is a man who embodies the values that this team and this community represent, according to Peter Nowak. Hard work. No pretensions. A never-say-die attitude.
Nowak was keen to keep his players feet on the ground when the big names of global soccer came to visit during the season. He urged his players not to measure their progress by the fact they were playing on the same field as Manchester United, or Celtic or Guadalajara.
What’s important is the work they put in here every day.
In this age of You Tube and highlight reels, he warns young players against the dangers of seeing only glamor.
Danny Mwanga had watched the Brazilians play in New York, and he came to training raving about Robinho and his flicks and tricks. I said ‘yes Danny, but did you notice what he did off the ball?’ That’s what you should’ve been watching.”
Even the biggest names need to keep dreaming, keep aspiring, keep working. It’s a lesson Nowak repeats like a mantra.
When Manchester United came to town in July for a preseason friendly, the cherubic figure of Nani, their Portuguese winger, posed for his picture doing the Rocky victory shuffle on the Art Museum steps. Like his countryman Ronaldo, Nani left behind a poor background to scale the heights at Old Trafford. This season, United seemed to have gone one better in the Hollywood script stakes by signing Bébé, a Lisbon street player who spent much of his youth in a church-run shelter.
Manchester United has always been a home for football's dreamers. Peter Nowak spoke of how the Philadelphia club could learn much from England’s most famous club. Perhaps one day, Le Toux will act as an ambassador for the Union on preseason tours, in the way ex-captain and current coach of Thailand Bryan Robson does for United. But for now, the Union are still at the scheming stage, still forging an identity.
A tireless work ethic and lack of pretention has been Le Toux’s contribution, and it will be a major part of his legacy. He has also left all who met him with an impression of modest decency. On the field, he has led by example: Young players like Danny Mwanga have blossomed under his guidance, and his 14 goals and 10 assists provided a montage of memories in his first season.
Perhaps the finest of these came on the day the Union’s hopes of making the MLS playoffs finally ended. Too many points had been thrown away as the team slowly gelled, as Nowak’s collective of nomads adapted to the nuances of their shared global language.
The season was winding down; Houston Dynamo was a goal up, but the Frenchman refused to be beaten.
10.02.2010: PPL Park, Chester, PA: Philadelphia Union v Houston Dynamo
In the 40th minute (3.20 on video), Roger Torres receives the ball in midfield, and the slight midfielder dribbles deep into Houston’s territory, somehow holding off the robust challenge of Brad Davis.The best players make their own time and space, and suddenly, he has carved out enough of each to look up and spot the first inkling of a trademark Le Toux run: The lean body of the Frenchman flinches forward as his bodyweight is propelled off his toes, and head and shoulders dip into a sprinter’s spring. The defender is left for dead.
The Colombian’s left foot floats a perfectly weighted ball just in front of his teammate. It is a pass that begs to be finished with a flourish. Le Toux is suddenly airborne. The soda-sipping masses snap out of their seats.
The Frenchman’s leap would probably be termed a grand jeté in ballet, defined as a jump from one foot to the other in which the working leg is brushed into the air and appears to have been thrown. That’s dance; in soccer, he also has a ball to control before he lands. The toe of Le Toux’s left foot kills the ball mid-flight, and it drops to the ground in front of him, slow as a dry leaf in fall.
This gives him time to set the landing left leg and to glance goalwards and read the keeper’s intent. Seeing Pat Onstad leaning left, the striker casually glances the ball home with the inside of his right foot. The whole fluid move is performed with a swaggering sangfroid that would seem almost arrogant, if you didn’t know this humble man from Rennes.
His feet have done the talking. Again. He runs to acknowledge the crowd and the delight of teammates, who speak the same language, but can only dream of such fluency.
Ha, haaaaa…Speedo man to the rescue encore!
He has come along way from Mont-Saint-Aignan. But Sébastien Le Toux has found his football home.
Right now, in Philadelphia, he is exactly where he is meant to be.