“Who says you can’t go home?”
Those are the words of a popular song by rocker and former Philadelphia Soul owner Jon Bon Jovi. They may also be the words of Sebastien Le Toux, another adopted son of a city where work and results will earn you the key to the city.
2012 was supposed to be the next step forward for the Philadelphia Union. They were led by Le Toux and former Manager Peter Nowak to an MLS Cup Playoff appearance in a successful second season. It left fans dreaming that hoisting an MLS Cup may have been on the horizon.
Instead, a major roster shuffle took place, and many key pieces to that 2011 squad moved onto other destinations. Some were painted as voluntary, like goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon returning to his native Colombia to conclude a wonderful career. Others, like Le Toux, were clearly forced by economics and ego. When the Union traded the French-born forward to the Vancouver Whitecaps for allocation dollars, fans were largely incensed. The striker approached the media to plead his case, leaving the team with a clear crisis on their hands. As the 2012 campaign came off the rails, more moves were coordinated by Nowak to keep control of the locker room, degrading the on-field product. That culminated in his departure in mid-June.
Fast forward to December 6th. After finishing in 8th Place in the East, 5 places and 12 points less than in 2011, the Union clearly needed some quality additions to push on. Le Toux also struggled in 2012. First with the Whitecaps, he struggled to contribute on a roster with a plethora of attacking options like Eric Hassli and Darren Mattocks. He never really settled in at the western Canadian side. They traded him to New York for Dane Richards and allocation money. This time, Le Toux found himself in a situation where he was more of a bench option than a bona fide starter. This became especially true once the team brought in Tim Cahill as a third Designated Player. Hans Backe changed tactics, preferring a narrow workhorse in Dax McCarty on the right. Le Toux scored 5 goals in 2012, compared to 14 and 12 in the years 2010 and ’11, respectively (including a very slow start in 2011).
New York appeared likely to move the Frenchman, and Philadelphia seemed the logical destination. He was the player to grab the mantle in Year 1 of the franchise, and the fans adored him for it. His style and hard work on the pitch meant that his shirt was the one most worn by the PPL Park faithful in those first two seasons.
And so it was reported on Thursday by Ives Galarcep that the Union acquired Le Toux’s rights from New York for surplus forward Josue Martinez and another batch of allocation money. The news was met with a mixed reaction from Union supporters. Le Toux is still a fan favorite, and no doubt the team will sell plenty of jerseys leading up to First Kick in March.
Yet this move dredges up those feelings of the past 12 months. It’s easy to think, “Why was he traded in the first place?” It’s true that from a purely PR standpoint, this appeases a lot of fans who were upset, and brings back that familiar “face of the franchise.” It would be no surprise to see a sister move in the upcoming Re-Entry Draft, with former captain Danny Califf left unprotected by Chivas USA.
But once you scratch beneath the surface, this does take some guts for the organization. Rarely in sports do fans have their team’s management make a pretty clear statement of, “We were wrong.” In reality, this is a case where both player and team benefit from the reunion, with Le Toux’s affection for the area being well known.
So 2013 will be a new day, but also a return to some familiarity. The move does present some issues, primarily how Le Toux will fit back into a team that had “moved on,” from his presence in the squad. Jack McInerney had a nice breakout 2012, with 8 goals in the midst of turning 20 years old. Will he work in tandem with Le Toux up top? Or will Le Toux slide into midfield and look to scoop goals attacking from the wings? The Union could also look overseas for a more tactically-developed threat at forward. Whatever the case, John Hackworth will have plenty to decide in his mind before preseason training begins in the late winter.
Even with all of the tactical and personnel moves needing to be pounded out, when it comes to matchday, PPL Park should return to more of a 2011 feel come the New Year. The Le Toux shirts should return, and possibly even a taste of the hope fans felt before the “Bad Medicine” was delivered by Nowak’s unpopular trades. With their all-time leading scorer back, the Union hope it will give their fans a reason to “Never Say Goodbye.”