Sébastien Le Toux: How a Soccer Nomad Found His Home in Philly (Part 2 of 4)

Justin KavanaghContributor IOctober 28, 2011

Le Toux: Philly Favorite
Le Toux: Philly FavoriteChris Gardner/Getty Images

As the Philadelphia Union prepare for their first-ever play-off game against Houston Dynamo on Sunday, much of the team’s hopes are pinned on the phenomenal form of French No. 9, Sébastien Le Toux.

Le Toux has contributed 11 goals and nine assists to the Union’s historic push into the postseason. Ten of those goals came in the last 12 games.

The 27-year-old has played every minute of every one of the Union’s league games this season. Le Toux was named MLS Player of the Month for September and seems a likely contender for the league’s MVP award.

Rewind the clock to a year ago: Philadelphia’s first season in MLS. The Union’s locker room echoed with accents from California, Europe, Latin America and Africa. As Polish team manager Peter Nowak strove to impose a collective identity, the French playmaker became a focal point in determining the spirit of the Union.

Justin Kavanagh followed his progress through that difficult first season and traces the story of Sébastien Le Toux here in the second of four parts.

The town house that Sébastien Le Toux shares with younger teammate Kyle Nakazawa is spartan. No wall hangings, no mementos, no paintings have been added to the default décor anonymity of new condos everywhere.

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The complex is modern, but the red-brick exterior is designed to fit in with the old-world feel of West Chester, the town originally settled by Quakers in the late 1700s. The condo boasts floors and furniture with wood used from a shipwreck off New England.

The Sons of Ben show their appreciation
The Sons of Ben show their appreciation

Likewise, the façade of their workplace, Philadelphia Union’s PPL Park, is constructed from brick and natural stone, a continuity of traditional Philadelphia architecture. Tradition, or even a veneer of history, is important around here.

The Philadelphia Union, of course, was a blank slate without history as Peter Nowak assembled his squad and went about imposing his view of what their tradition should become and what values the club would project to the community they would represent. The players learned early that the Pole was thorough in the professional demands he makes on those around him.

Le Toux and Nakazawa, like all playing staff, even those not included in that day’s squad, leave the house on match days in smart, dry-cleaned navy suits bearing the club crest of the coiled snake.

From the guy who searches your bag at the gate to the friendly usher in the Muslim headscarf, everyone here is primed to represent this club in a positive light. But Nowak’s stamp goes deeper than a skin-deep PR exercise: the Pole encourages journalists to report the impressive absence of hamstring injuries this season, a result of the thoroughness of his fitness and medical staff.

Sébastien Le Toux’s fitness levels bear him out. Against Real Salt Lake on August 11, 2010, the Frenchman saw his 92nd-minute corner kick cleared and sprinted 80 yards to cover the breakaway. That game was played in the relative evening cool of 87ºF. Three days earlier, the Union, down to 10 men early in the game, had covered the extra ground in Dallas in staggering temperatures around 108º.

Covering the hard miles
Covering the hard miles

Back in February 2010, as the squad assembled for preseason training in Florida, Le Toux was shocked to see snow. The new team spent a further eleven days in Guadalajara, Mexico, in weather more conducive to toning muscles and forming a bond between strangers who would share close quarters for the next 9 months.

"We had a good camp down in Guadalajara, it was eleven days of practice and being together. It was a soccer facility up in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, a long drive from the airport on bumpy back-roads. We were completely isolated, no Internet, no phone, no distractions. So you were thrown among complete strangers really, like a school camp. It was up to us senior players to help bring everyone closer. We came together as a team, and we’re still working on that, but in Mexico, we also came together as a group."

He tells a telling story, jokily, against himself, about a day when several new teammates wandered off to take advantage of a rare break in training. A pool with a high board was found near the sparse mountain camp. The natural machismo of young male athletes kicked in. 

"So Alejandro Moreno (the Venezuelan) is laughing and joking and once the first guy takes the plunge, he’s challenging everyone “Okay, who has the cojones to go next?

"I accept the challenge. Alejandro and a couple of others have done it, so I climb this long, long ladder… Oh mon Dieu! It’s a long way when you’re up there looking down. And of course in the French fashion, I’ve got my shorts over my Speedo briefs. So okay, I’m going to do it. I take off my shorts and I am standing there in the Speedos. And the South Americans just fall about laughing. “What the hell are these? Speedos? Who wears Speedos?!” The joke sticks that the Frenchman has got his sexy Speedos on. So that’s what I say now when we’re in a fix now: It’s okay guys, I’ve got my sexy Speedos on! And in the end, yes, I made the long dive."

Fred congratulates the Frenchman
Fred congratulates the FrenchmanChris Gardner/Getty Images

Le Toux returned to Philadelphia with a sense of who was who in the Union pack: the jokers, the introverts, the rookies, the senior pros. It was strange to walk into a dressing room with no established pecking order, no cliques, none of the usual preexisting allegiances.

He decided to ask Kyle Nakazawa, a recent UCLA graduate, if he wanted to share the place in West Chester, a small college town 25 miles west of Philly. The rookie, taking his first steps in professional sports, appreciated the offer. He’d barely met a foreigner before, and here he was sharing a house with a Frenchman and marveling at the South American's one-touch soccer at training every day.

The Frenchman was good company. Le Toux was from the small city of Rennes, so he felt at home in West Chester. Besides, the rents in Philly were too high for their MLS salaries.

They liked to dine out, and in the laid-back college town locals were friendly but not intrusive, allowing the roommates space to unwind. Le Toux didn’t cook much, but that was okay. Kyle had his rice pot with him, the legacy of a Japanese background.

Séba was neat, you could say that for him. The only sign of any clutter in the house was his growing collection of swapped shirts in his wardrobe. There was the MLS All-Stars warm up shirt—the Californian wanted one of those of his own some day. There was the Manchester United shirt of Gabriel Obertan, who formerly played for Le Toux’s old French team, Lorient. Sébastien had played United twice in 2010, in a friendly with the Union and a week later in the All-Stars game. The guy has been around the block, Kyle thought. Look and learn.

Room mates: Le Toux and Nakazawa
Room mates: Le Toux and NakazawaChris Gardner/Getty Images

It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-August, as Le Toux takes the keys to his Toyota hybrid and waits for his roommate to find something from the basement game room. They spend most of their time down there, watching DVDs of games, playing ping-pong, throwing darts. The Frenchman connects his iPod and searches through an eclectic song list of R&B, rap, soul, world music and the newest genre Kyle has turned him on to: country. The Georgia drawl of Zac Brown comes on the car sound system. When in America, do as Americans do…

So begins another day’s adventure in this strange contradiction of a country. The car passes by the endless soccer fields of West Chester’s schools and college. Signs of soccer’s suburban sprawl are everywhere; it’s the wild flower in the garden of American sports, blown in from abroad, but its roots are not yet deep.

Le Toux recounts his early days on foreign ground for the Seattle Sounders in the USL First Division in early 2007, and the culture shock of American soccer.

"The first surprise was the absence of changing rooms. You’d have to arrive at the field fully changed and go back to your place to take a shower. Then there was the Astroturf. Controlling the ball, anticipating the bounce, sliding in for tackles, it took some adjusting to. It was not what I was used to in France. Often the games would be played on fields with both soccer and American football markings. So every few strides you’d cross these strange, multi-colored lines: you’ve beaten the full-back, but is this the end-line? Should I cross now, or is this just another five-yard mark? Then you look up and you see two tall posts looming over the goal…"

The Fans' View of Le Toux
The Fans' View of Le Toux

It was all a long way from Rennes.

Soccer is still paying rent in much of America. But now in places like PPL Park and the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey (home to the New York Red Bulls and to Le Toux’s compatriot, Thierry Henry), the sport is finally finding a permanent home.

The Union occasionally accommodates rugby, lacrosse and women’s soccer games in PPL Park. There are plans to use the scenic site as a rock venue, but even if Bono and his spaceship are in town, Nowak has prioritized that the field must be available for first-team practice.

Today’s practice is being conducted close to the touchline, so I eavesdrop on the session from the shadows of the River End. Le Toux and Kyle Nakazawa are both clad in sleeveless tees as midday temperatures push 100º. They send free-kicks into the penalty box for forwards to attack.

It’s an exercise in monotony. The endless repetition of such routines is the flip-side of the global game’s glamor. Repeating the routine 20, 30 times or more in this searing August heat in an empty stadium, Le Toux looks as nervous as a student preparing for a test in his weakest subject.

Peter Nowak watches intently, demanding that the trajectory of the ball be inch-perfect. He goes and stands beside the first defender, holding a hand above his head. The ball must clear this man, but stay in that hard-to-defend corridor between the line of defenders and the goalkeeper. It must be whipped over with pace and precision.

The Professional: Perfected by practice
The Professional: Perfected by practiceDrew Hallowell/Getty Images

Go, Sébastien!

Le Toux gets it right first time, but the defenders clear his next two efforts. Nowak walks over to show what he wants: a 46-year-old left leg is swung around the ball; a lifetime’s practice really does make perfect. With eerie precision, the cross goes over the defender, the keeper is left in no-man’s land and a Venezuelan forehead connects. The goal is celebrated with all the glee of a schoolyard winner a minute before the bell goes. Alejandro Moreno makes sure that any stadium staff within earshot know about his gooooooooooooooooooll! 

Back on the touchline, student quizzes master on the finer points of technique. Then the pros’ version of 100 lines resumes: I must clear the first defender, I must clear the first defender, I must…

The mind wanders to that infamous incident in the career of MLS’s biggest name. Back in 1998, David Beckham was being instructed on his free-kick technique by Glenn Hoddle. The England manager approached the struggling 23-year-old and indicated that as he didn’t have the technique, he would show him how it’s done. A cold war ensued at the perceived slight.

The cash-fuelled, ego-driven world of English football seems far from this new field of dreams in Chester; but with Beckham-like dedication, the Frenchman keeps practicing, still on the field 45 minutes after the others have sought the air-conditioned locker room, the cold shower, the cooler full of blood-sugar restoring drinks.

Le Toux’s Polish mentor looks out from the shade of the River End stand, smiles knowingly, and shouts out his approval.

You’re getting there, Séba!

­­­ Part three will follow tomorrow, Saturday, October 29.