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Buy low, sell high: The Sebastien Le Toux story

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.

(For a look at the Union’s striker situation, sans Le Toux, check out Eli’s post today.)

15 Comments

  1. Think this article has won me over to the idea of him leaving. It makes sense business wise, but the hurdle of losing the player, person and face is just killing me. Damn your logic! Though, I would like to see our league keep it’s stars one day.

  2. What will it cost us to replace Le Toux’s production? If he really is undervalued in MLS AND we only keep a portion of the transfer fee, then how are we to replace him with a player of similiar value? We’d have to pay more for a non-MLS player with less money to do so. Doesn’t make sense to me.

    If HE wants to go, then I think we owe it to him. If not, I don’t see any reason to do it.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      I agree. Obviously we won’t know how much of the money the Union will keep, but I don’t see it being enough to justify the stain it can potentially put on the Union as a young team who are still trying to gain a greater foothold in Philadelphia. If the Union we an established team of 10+ years, then yes. but they are not and the loss of such a popular player has the potential to do damage to the team’s reputation city-wide. Just some more stuff to think about.

      • I tend to agree with you, Eli. Ed and I were talking about the same thing last night: How will fans react at the gate?

        For me, the only justification for letting him go is that he’s earned it. Everything else above, all that “logic” — The mind recognizes it, but the heart wants to keep Le Toux. But if he wants to go and you get a fair offer, should you stop him? Is it fair to him? He’s earned the fairness from the Union. Taylor Twellman situations are very, very bad for MLS.

      • I really have a hard time seeing how this would hurt ticket sales. A large majority of people that go to Union games follow the team and are fans of soccer in general. these are not the type of people that are going to stop coming to games because sebastien is gone. one because hes only been here two years. two the union have a roster thats easily identifiable with out him.

        Union ticket holders and fans in general are not sixers fans. we can trade our AI and stay interested in the team because we, as soccer fans in america, tend to invest more in our team.

        also, let us not forget half way through last season there were quite a few calls for seba to be cut loose. his form in the second half completely made up for his slow start. but its still important to remember it hasnt been a perfect two years.

  3. Josh T. of Kensington says:

    He’s going to want to go. If a basket ball player is performing well at the college level, he jumps at a chance to play pro. The money differences btw MLS and EPL are comparable. I’ve always thought Le Toux made it on heart, and haven’t thought that he was the most technical player, which does concern me. I don’t want him to go and be unsuccessful, but I will route for him.

  4. Of course Le Toux wants to go! He is going to get paid 10x as much and play in the best league in the world. The team did the right thing.

  5. I hate to see him go but I wish him all the luck in the world. He deserves our support.

  6. I hate to see Le Toux go, and in the short run I think this hurts this team. Without him it is not likely that we will make the playoffs this year. But it in the long run, this might just be what the youngsters on this team need to finally take control of this team and to show everyone what they actually have. And it will give the team some capital to invest in other places as well.

  7. santas grotto says:

    Sad to see him go but the points you make are all correct and make the move sensible.
    The other “value” of the move for MLS is that as the gap narrows more young players from abroad trying to get noticed by European clubs will now consider MLS a good starting point. This gives the league more credibility for scouts and perhaps increases the competition from something between waning veterans to young players trying to make a name for themselves.

    • I actually hope we’ll get guys on loan to come here instead of them playing in some lower league in England. Once that happens then we’ll know MLS is making inroads.

  8. So are we going to bring someone else in? Or are we set? Michael Thurk? ……..Crickets
    ….Uh-oh.

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