Sebastien Le Toux is back where he belongs.
The return to Philadelphia is easy enough for a fan favorite, who also happens to be the all-time leading goal scorer in franchise history.
But things are different on the field.
Peter Nowak is gone. Fellow forwards Danny Mwanga and Veljko Paunovic are no longer on the roster. The tactics are different. The shape changed.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is Sebastien’s skill set. He’s a motor guy, a hustle player who can get behind defenders and latch onto long passes. He knows how to put the ball in the back of the net.
"We're going to use him as a forward," said manager John Hackworth at Friday's re-introductory press conference. "It's the position that he's been most successful at. It's truly the position that we needed and missed a little bit. And I think one of the good things about the way that we've played, and playing different formations, is that we can adjust tactically, and take advantage of that. But we were missing a piece on the attacking side. Sebastien fills that obviously."
Up Top, or Out Wide?
It's important to hear that quote from Hackworth, because one of the big tactical issues surrounding Seba is whether to play him up top as a true forward, or use him out on the right wing.
When asked where he prefers to play, Le Toux was on the same page as his manager. Here's the quote:
"Like John said, I love to play as a striker and play in the middle and be more free. When I was in Vancouver and New York I played a lot on the wing. When you come into a new team, I'm not the type of player who says 'no I don't want to play there'. I try to make the team better and go wherever the coach wants me to go. It was a good experience for me but I didn't have as much success because it was a bit different for me. But I learned a lot (in Vancouver and New York) and I'm just glad to come back here and play with the team I want to be with."
When Sebastien scored 14 goals in 2010, he played in both positions in Peter Nowak’s 4-4-2.
There were two main looks:
1. Paired as a forward with Alejandro Moreno
2. Right midfield with Moreno and Danny Mwanga up top
Sebastien was successful in both spots because of the play of the veteran Moreno.
Moreno was a prototypical hold-up player - a guy who could draw defenders and create space for Le Toux to run. He ended the season with seven assists and played in all but four games in 2010.
When Carlos Ruiz came around, things changed. Peter Nowak opened the 2011 season with a 4-2-2-2 “empty bucket” look, and decided to pair “El Pescadito” and Le Toux up top. Both players liked to hang on the back shoulder of defenders, and they would often make runs into the same space. They never really developed the chemistry that Moreno and Le Toux had, and Sebastien went into a scoring slump that spanned half of the season.
To his credit, however, Le Toux contributed in other ways. He wasn’t scoring from the run of play, but he converted three penalty kicks. He provided eight assists. He didn’t come off the field.
He busted the slump in a 2-1 win against Real Salt Lake, then turned it on from there. Le Toux scored nine goals in eight games and finished the 2011 season with 11 goals and nine assists.
Le Toux as a Lone Striker
Last season, I wrote this article about the Union's switch to a 4-5-1 and the seven-game unbeaten streak that ultimately got the team into the playoffs.
When Sebastien started to find his scoring touch, he was the lone striker in a hybrid system where Veljko Paunovic played as a withdrawn forward. Justin Mapp, Freddy Adu, and Roger Torres rotated in the wide midfield spots.
With Paunovic and Mike Farfan assuming deeper central roles, Le Toux was given room to run up top, and subsequently started beating defenders on simple long balls.
Here’s what Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said about the formation after the Union beat the Sounders 2-0 at CenturyLink Field:
"They play a 4-5-1. They play very conservative and they try to pack the midfield and they hope to spring Sebastien for an opportunity here or there. Even though they had possession on us in the first half, they really didn’t have any real clear quality chances in the second half, but obviously they converted on the chances that they got.”
It’s rare to settle on a lone striker formation that doesn’t involve a big “target man," but in this case, Le Toux was able to get it done.
You'd also assume that Le Toux is a good fit for the 4-3-3, should Hackworth decide to use it again. It's much easier to get Sebastien involved in a system with three forwards, as opposed to two strikers and a left and right sided midfielder.
Contact Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kevin on Twitter @PhilUnionKevinK