Buy low, sell high: The Sebastien Le Toux story

(Published in The Philly Soccer Page on Jan. 19, 2012.)

Buy low, sell high. It might be the oldest rule in business.

So if Philadelphia Union was ever going to sell Sebastien Le Toux, now’s the time.

At 28, Le Toux is in his prime. He may never be worth more than he is right now.

Bolton has never needed to buy good players for bargain prices more than right now, as they desperately try to avoid a relegation that could devastate the club financially.

Enter MLS.

Most top MLS players are undervalued on the international transfer market. Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and maybe Robbie Keane might be the exceptions. Otherwise, you’ll find bargains, if you’re an EPL team that scouts well and gets past the anti-American soccer bias. Owen Coyle’s first flyer on an MLS player panned out brilliantly when Stuart Holden was one of the EPL’s best midfielders last year, so it’s logical he’d try others when he needs an affordable and immediate talent upgrade at multiple positions.

If Le Toux goes to Bolton, he’ll probably fetch no more than $2 million.

Bolton is likely playing by the same business rules, betting the $7 million price for Gary Cahill is a peak price in a depressed market that will enable Bolton to buy Le Toux at a bargain rate (compared to Europe-based counterparts), along with New York defender Tim Ream for $4 million and one or two other underpriced players.

The Union could do the same at their level. No, Philadelphia won’t keep the entire transfer fee, with part going to league coffers as per MLS rules, but the club would likely keep enough to finance acquisition of new players and overall reinvestment in a club that wants a bigger stadium and firmer long-term financial foundation. If you sell a product at its peak price, you can reinvest to buy something that will eventually be worth far more than you buy it for.

Considering Union manager Peter Nowak is on record saying his team isn’t championship caliber yet, it could make sense. Basically, Nowak is trying to build a team that can win three league titles in a row beginning around 2014. That means locking in a nucleus that will play together long enough to do that. If you’re betting on the standard European soccer player development-and-decline arc, then Le Toux begins declining in two to three years. (I’m not betting on that, by the way, but the theory is widely accepted. More on this another time.) He’s part of the present, but he’s not part of the future, under that mindset.

A Le Toux move would still be like a kidney punch. He’s the face of the franchise, undoubtedly the most beloved Union player, and already one of the most popular athletes in Philadelphia. But he has so endeared himself to Union fans with his hard work, classy behavior, and terrific play that very few would begrudge him the chance to play in the world’s best league.

Loans and trends

If Le Toux goes on loan to Bolton, as opposed to a transfer, it’s still a bargain that’s part of a new and larger trend that began with Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan.

Holden and Donovan weren’t the first American players to find success in a top European league, but they may be the first to go immediately from being impact MLS players to impact EPL players (i.e. top 3-5 players on their team). Successful loans of Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane should help cement the concept.

Their successes show the talent gap between MLS and the EPL is smaller than most believe. No, MLS isn’t on par with these leagues, but if a few top MLS players can make the leap and contribute right away at a level comparable to their MLS performance, who’s to say others can’t?

That could project not only onto Le Toux and Ream, but also someone like Michael Farfan, whose appearance at Sunderland stunned many. But you watched Farfan this year. You saw his sick goal against Real Madrid. You saw that creativity in his play that’s so rare for American players. If not for the inherent view that MLS is inferior to European leagues, wouldn’t you think his performance would have turned some heads in bigger leagues?

So what happens when the inherent bias against MLS disappears, thanks to players like Holden, Donovan, and (more indirectly) Clint Dempsey? Suddenly, a far-sighted European manager can have confidence that top MLS players can immediately make it in their league. If you recognize this before your competitors, you can find a legitimate player at a cut-rate price, before the market value of those MLS players goes up. David Moyes saw it years ago when he started acquiring players from non-traditional soccer countries, like Tim Cahill (Australia), Steven Pienaar (South Africa) and Tim Howard (U.S.). Owen Coyle sees it too.

The winter loans of Donovan and David Beckham have shown European clubs that getting a top player during a crowded January-February schedule can save their bacon when they lose players to tournaments (African Cup of Nations), injury, and fatigue. Le Toux may not star in the EPL, but if he’s a solid contributor for six to eight weeks while on loan, Bolton would benefit disproportionally to what they spend. The Omar Gonzalez disaster aside, MLS clubs financially benefit when players go on loan, have their wages picked up, and raise the eventual transfer price, thanks to the shop window.

So would it surprise if Farfan’s training stint at Sunderland turns into a loan? Not in the slightest. Like Le Toux, he’s cheap, he’s good, and he might be able to replicate his MLS performance in the EPL right away.

So why did all these Union personnel moves happen Wednesday?

In one day, the Union cut four players, announced the retirement of Veljko Paunovic, and saw word break on Le Toux’s imminent move to England. Think that was a coincidence? If so, I have a bridge to sell you.

Here’s why Wednesday was the big day.

  1. The Union clearly delayed announcing the moves on Paunovic, Joe Tait, Morgan Langley, Levi Houapeu and Ryan Richter until after the supplemental draft. Once again, Nowak takes a page out of Bill Belichick’s book. You don’t want other teams to know what your needs are on draft day. If you hide your losses, you hide what you need to replace, which gives you an advantage against other teams trying to project your picks and game-plan their own in the draft.
  2. Once you add rookies in the drafts, you can gauge whether to cut your current end-of-the-bench players. In Richter’s case, the drafting of fullback Raymon Gaddis made him expendable, as Nowak clearly viewed Richter as another positional experiment and not an attacker, which he was in college.
  3. D.C. United held its first training session on Wednesday, with Houapeu and Richter on trial there. It’s a bit hard (and unnecessary) to keep it quiet after that.
  4. The Union open camp on Wednesday, Jan. 25. Time to set the roster.

The Union probably didn’t plan for news of Le Toux’s potential move to leak out, so that may be the one part that is coincidence. The rest? Not likely.