(Published in The Philly Soccer Page on Jan. 31, 2012.)
“You just ripped the heart out of your squad. And your fan base.”
“Horrible day, horrible decision. All the guy did was give his heart, soul and sweat to this team for two years and this is how you repay him. Good luck Seba, I hope you have a career season this year and show these fools what they’ve given up.”
““I wanted to stay in Philly. I didn’t care about the money.”
— Sebastien Le Toux, to the Delaware County Times in a must-read interview
This should have been unthinkable.
This should have been where common sense kicked in.
It should have been where the regard for Philadelphia Union fans and players kicked in.
But it didn’t. After all, Peter Nowak was involved.
“Feelings are not really included in my job description,” the Union manager said today during a press conference.
Sport is a business, as we all know. Union fans and players saw that play out during the Michael Orozco-Fiscal fiasco last year. And we knew, to a degree, that could impact the Le Toux situation. I even wrote about it last week in a post titled “Buy low, sell high: The Sebastien Le Toux story“, in which I explained the merits of a Le Toux sale. But we all thought it was Bolton and the dream of top-flight European soccer.
Little did we know.
Union fans are furious, and rightly so. A Le Toux move to Bolton was one thing: A chance for a player to ascend to a higher level after giving so much to fans for two years. People understood the business side, but it’s clear most felt the move was only justifiable if Le Toux wanted to go. Le Toux went on trial but left Bolton early, choosing to stay in Philadelphia.
Instead, he’s off to Vancouver of all places, sold for an undisclosed fee kept secret due to a dubious league policy, obscuring the deal’s true value. Don’t buy the spin that Le Toux’s sale financed the Roger Torres transfer. It might be more accurate to say it financed the acquisition of Le Toux’s replacement, Josue Martinez (and possibly Lionard Pajoy), filling the budget hole the Martinez purchase left. Le Toux was never meant to return.
Le Toux: “Peter Nowak doesn’t really want me in his team”
Nowak rightly points out the need to avoid losing Le Toux on free transfer after Le Toux’s contract expires in December. MLS has had that happen too often, with players like Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, Jonathan Bornstein and others moving abroad for no transfer fees. The Union needed to get something for him or keep him.
But was it really all that implausible that the Union could resign him? Le Toux makes $179,000 a year. The Designated Player rule would have allowed the Union to resign him, and with the league picking up the first $335,000 of the approximately $400,000 salary Le Toux proposed, the Union would theoretically pay just $65,000 of Le Toux’s salary.
Le Toux said Nowak simply didn’t want him on the team, and when Le Toux learned of the trade, it hit him hard.
“I was sad in the beginning,” Le Toux told Whitecaps FC Daily, a radio show on 1410 AM in Vancouver.* “I got two good years here. But after the fact that, you know, the coach of Philadelphia, Peter Nowak, doesn’t really want me in his team, and the Whitecaps, you know, want me more and really believe in me and want me — want me there — is great.”
Le Toux said he first heard of the possible trade the same way most people did: He read it on Twitter. “A lot of people were talking and just asking questions that I have no clue (about). So I just found out this morning when I was on my way to practice.”
The person to tell him wasn’t his manager. Nowak’s No. 2 man picked up the dirty work, as usual. “Coach John Hackworth just called me in, told me that, you know, I was traded to Vancouver,” Le Toux said.
(*Ed. note: Le Toux’s radio interview begins at the 30-minute mark.)
Le Toux’s value to fans
Philadelphia’s a tough town. Its fans are notoriously brutal. And Le Toux is French. Americans love to hate the French.
Le Toux took Philadelphia like perhaps no other athlete in recent history. He was the face, engine, heart and soul of the Union. He was responsible for most of the goals, and he is almost universally loved by Union fans. In just two years, he became the Union’s version of Rocky, a guy who achieved far beyond his natural talents due to hard work, hustle, and never giving up. He symbolized everything Philadelphia fans wanted a team to be, in any sport. If he wasn’t a Philly sports icon yet, he was well on his way.
For a two-year-old franchise trying to crack into a saturated pro sports market, that matters. The new car smell doesn’t last forever. A club needs popular players fans can relate to and, quite frankly, love the way they love Le Toux. They also need players who love this area back the way Le Toux does.
Sure, some fans root for the team and say they will follow the team regardless of who wears the jersey. But is that all spectator sports are, simply rooting for a shirt? Or do you care about who’s actually wearing it? Do you celebrate with the shirt, or do you celebrate with the player? Is the player just an automaton who maneuvers the uniform across a pitch for your enjoyment, or is he a human being?
In MLS, where guys like Sheanon Williams and Kyle Nakazawa barely make enough money to raise a family if they choose to, fans build ties with players like in no other sport — or at least they do in Philadelphia. There’s a connection between Union players and fans that is rare and organic, spawned by creative, passionate outreach by the Sons of Ben and other fans and the presence of good, personable guys on the team. Le Toux was known for staying late after games to sign autographs and generally being an eminently approachable, normal, nice guy who played his heart out every game, whether he was marginalized positionally by the misguided Carlos Ruiz signing or scoring goals by the boatload.
Now Nowak has callously discarded him like trash tossed to the curb, without even the decency to man up and tell him face to face. (Sounds a lot like how Danny Califf learned he lost the captain’s armband, doesn’t it?) It’s an insult of massive proportions both to Union fans and players.
Yes, that’s how big-time professional sports sometimes work, but MLS isn’t big-time yet. Around the league, clubs like Seattle and Portland have shown it’s not only possible but also a successful business practice to be open and respectful to your fans and players while still recognizing that, yes, sometimes players need to move on. On the flip side, clubs like Toronto FC have shown that, even if you have a waiting list for season tickets, you can still find yourself with empty seats once the new car smell wears off and the fans decide they hate management more than they love the players.
Nowak may say he’s building a Union roster for the future. Union management should ask themselves whether it’s worth the good will he’s destroying in the process.