[MLS] Now that he's found a home in Philadelphia, Sebastien Le Toux can focus on making his road trips more productive. By scoring 14 goals and registering 11 assists, he contributed directly to an MLS-record 71.4 percent of the Union's 35 goals last year. Yet to improve on its expansion season of eight wins, Philadelphia can't rely so heavily on Le Toux, and to that end has bolstered its forwards corps.
“I think Sebastien did a great job playing forward, playing a free role, popping up in different spots,” says Coach Peter Nowak, who used Le Toux in midfield and up top while juggling personnel and formations. “I think this is a good game for him. That is why we moved him and arranged the structure to give him a little bit more freedom.”
Despite its first-year struggles -- partially due to playing eight of its first 10 games on the road while construction work on its new stadium, PPL Park, was completed -- waves of boisterous fans generated an environment that Le Toux says rivals that of his former home, Qwest Field in Seattle, where the crowds are nearly twice PPL’s capacity of 18,500.
“It is not the biggest but the fans get a very nice atmosphere and a very nice view,” says Le Toux, who was born in Brittany, the westernmost region of France, and played two seasons with Lorient in the Second Division before being spotted by Seattle, then a USL team, at a player combine. “People bring their families and it is sometimes like in Europe when the fans give their strength to the team. It is only 18,000, but 18,000 every game. It’s full and the noise is comparable to Seattle even with less people.”
He won the 2007 USL MVP award and in two seasons scored 24 goals in 54 games playing up top, but incoming head coach Sigi Schmid decided the move to MLS necessitated a move to the flanks. Le Toux failed to hold down a regular starting place as the Sounders reached the playoffs and won the 2009 U.S. Open Cup title. They left him unprotected in the Expansion Draft, after which Le Toux packed his bags for a city he didn’t know much about.
“I played a few years for Seattle and when I found out I was coming to this city I was disappointed,” he says of his initial reaction to Philadelphia. “I was happy in Seattle, but it was up to me to make it for the best. I came to the East Coast, where I didn’t really know something over there, so it was brand-new for me.”
“When I talked with the coach [Peter Nowak] he told me he wanted me as a forward. In Seattle Sigi Schmid saw me as a wide midfielder, and so I was more happy to come here and play this position.”
At times Nowak also used Le Toux in midfield, but as the 2010 season unfolded they devised a looser role by which he could sniff out space and pierce cracks in the opponent’s defense. His acute sense of time and space and angles sets him apart in a league where a straightforward, robust approach often predominates.
“When I was younger I played as a wide defender and sometimes in the midfield,” says Le Toux. “Because I played a lot of positions when I was younger maybe I am more aware of how to make my runs and help my team, so I try to use that as much as I can.”
Only three goals and five assists came from Le Toux in road games last year. A stronger array of front-men gives Nowak more options throughout the lineup, especially at the point of attack.
With Danny Mwanga, Carlos Ruiz, Jack McInerney and Chris Agorsor at his disposal, Nowak can work up different combinations and let the journalists decide if Philly is playing 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2, 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1, all of which he mentioned in a conference call Wednesday just prior to the team’s return to the U.S. following a 16-day training trip to Crete.
A former Polish international who played much of his club ball in Germany, Nowak is a staunch advocate of adjusting personnel and formations and tactics depending on opponent and venue.
“Where he needs to improve is -- with 34 games now, especially - in the away games,” says Nowak. “We might look to combine more things to give him the freedom to keep him the capacity where he will be valuable for us in different spots in away games, because sometimes it is difficult for him to play the same game as he does at home. We may modify some stuff for him to help him be more consistent.”
At PPL Park, where the fans chant his name and salute his presence, Le Toux might play in a free role with a pair of forwards; on the road, he could be given a similar role but just one forward to work with. The speedy Agorsor, the crafty Ruiz, the powerful Mwanga, and the relentless McInerney allow Nowak to deploy disparate elements and make further adjustments as the score and conditions change.
As one of the smoothest movers in MLS, Le Toux floats and glides in search of a gap or channel to exploit with a quick burst or powerful run through scything legs and flailing elbows. As his stats show, he’s capable of setting up the chance or finishing it off. In Philly’s second season, other numbers will take priority.
“For me it will be important for my performance to be good in every game, to help the team win whether or not I score or help score a goal,” says Le Toux, who at 27 is hitting the prime of his career. “If I am scoring but we are not winning I am not happy about that. I hope to continue in my way last year with the goals and assists, but I will be happier for us to have more wins.”