When it comes to shaping a roster and dealing with player acquisitions, Earnie Stewart abides by the "Moneyball" philosophy, having already created a more thorough, innovative and numbers-heavy evaluation process than the Union had in years past.
But, at the same time, the Union’s first-year sporting director understands that you must also factor in personality and other off-field considerations, saying in a preseason interview that a common mistake that soccer executives make is evaluating players “only as professionals, like they have no private lives at all.”
It’s with this as a backdrop that we must examine one of the most monumental days in franchise history as the Union, on the final day of the MLS summer transfer window Wednesday, traded away one popular franchise icon but may have very well gained two more.
Let’s start with who they gave away — the player whose name even non-soccer fans in Philadelphia probably knew, Sebastien Le Toux.
To say Le Toux has been the face of the franchise since the Union’s inaugural 2010 season would be an understatement. He’s also been its arms, legs and body.
From scoring a hat trick — a hat trick! — in the team’s first-ever game in Philadelphia in 2010 … to scoring the first goal at Talen Energy Stadium (then called PPL Park) later that season … to scoring the team’s first and only playoff goal the following year … to scoring in his first game back in Philly in 2013 (after spending the 2012 season elsewhere because of another trade), Le Toux is responsible for so many of the club’s most memorable moments. And he holds pretty much every club record, too, leaving Philly and heading to Colorado with exactly 50 goals and 50 assists for the Union. How perfect is that?
But beyond his remarkable on-field production — let’s not forget about his career-high 12 assists in 2013 and his very impressive 12-goal, seven-assist campaign in 2014 — Le Toux was, by all accounts, a perfect ambassador for a burgeoning club.
Few people probably expected that to be the case when the Frenchman with the thick accent came over from Seattle in the 2009 expansion draft. But he immediately gained the fans’ appreciation by running forever (no one can match his fitness) and, quite simply, always playing hard. And he reciprocated that love by talking to fans after games, making them laugh with some hilarious karaoke videos on the jumbotron, representing the team at so many events, and even stopping random Philadelphians to take pictures if he thought they might recognize him but were too shy to say anything.
So it goes without saying that the Union didn’t trade Le Toux for any non-soccer reasons. He was Philadelphia soccer. It was, in simplest terms, a pure business transaction that came down to the fact that Colorado made them a solid financial offer and that the 32-year-old will be a free agent at the end of the season. It was, you can say, a Moneyball decision rather than a personal one.
“It was a difficult choice because he’s such a legend for the club,” Union head coach Jim Curtin admitted. “It’s not easy. It’s the hard part of the business. But we had to put emotion aside and do what is best for the club. Seba might not see it now, but long term I think it’s what was best for him, as well as the future of the Philadelphia Union. I know our fans are going to be upset. It’s difficult. But it’s the tough business part of things.”
Now on to some happier business: In one day, the Union managed to acquire two well-known players who have played in several important U.S. national team games: Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies. And while both are quite gifted players that will give the team a huge midseason boost, they also both possess the personality attributes that made the Union want to shell out big dollars to get them (something, perhaps, past regimes didn’t always consider quite as carefully as they should have).
Bedoya, Curtin noted, is a “Philadelphia-mentality guy” who really wanted to prove his worth in MLS after spending his entire pro career overseas. And Davies is an inspiration to so many people, surviving a serious car crash and a recent cancer diagnosis (he’s now in remission), as well as welcoming newborn twins that were born three months premature. Perhaps the best part of all: the two are old friends from Boston College, where they played and lived together. And they’re also friendly with other guys on the Union like Maurice Edu and Chris Pontius — made quite evident by Bedoya excitedly firing off tweets with a #reUnion hashtag as he prepares to join his old pals in Philly.
“Chemistry is important to me,” Curtin said. “The best teams I’ve ever played on, we hung out together, we had good times together off the field, but we knew when it was time to work hard as well. You go through each of the guys character-wise, and they’re all high-character people. I can trust them that they’re not going to turn into a distraction or anything like that. You have to enjoy coming to work every day. It’s similar to treating each other like brothers — you laugh, you fight, and when you go on the field together there’s a little bit of a tighter bond and having each other’s back.”
Le Toux clearly had the kind of character that Curtin — or any coach — would look for. And for 5½ seasons, he gave it all for his Philadelphia fans and teammates, representing the Union badge with honor.
But in the end, it was the business side of things, as cruel as it might be, that informed the Union technical staff that it was time to turn the page. Now they’re ushering in a new era — with players that possess the same kind of attitude that made Le Toux such a Philadelphia legend.