How Seba got his groove back

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Sebastien Le Toux is still not a midfielder.

Everyone around the league is talking about his league-leading assist total, but they’re missing the true revelation about his on-field play:

Le Toux has become a set piece maestro.

Seven of Le Toux’s 12 assists have come from set pieces. An eighth came on a cross sent in immediately after one of his corner kicks rebounded to him.

Le Toux’s improvement on set pieces has been a revelation. Those who followed him during his first Union tenure know his fatal flaw was his inaccurate set pieces, which he continued to take despite his teammates’ superior service. Today, that seems like a distant memory. His corners have consistently found their targets. His free kicks have been cleverly placed. Remember his perfectly lofted free kick that put Jack McInerney in for a game-winning goal against Chicago in May? Or how about his coordination of the indirect kick that beat Chivas USA?

Le Toux’s set piece brilliance this season is a testament to his ability to simply work hard and improve.

The recipients of those assists deserve credit too. For the Union’s first three seasons, they were typically one of the league’s shortest teams. They aren’t much taller now, but the bodies they throw forward have different qualities. Amobi Okugo has become a monster in the box, timing his leaps perfectly as he hones in on Le Toux’s kicks like an anti-ballistic missile striking its target. Conor Casey is an immovable bull who establishes and holds great position in the defensive china shop and flicks headers toward goal with unparalleled accuracy and power. Jack McInerney finds openings near goal like few others. Sheanon Williams just wills himself into position to fight for plays in the box.

The auxiliary forward

But that brings us back to the core point: Le Toux is still not a midfielder. His ball-handling is not sufficient to regularly hold possession while under pressure, and he can’t break a defender down off the dribble like Michael Farfan can.

Philly’s Frenchman functions best when he gets the ball with space in front of him, doesn’t have to take too many touches, and can focus on providing great service or shooting on goal.

Le Toux ranks third in the league in accurate crosses per game (2.3), behind only Brad Davis and Graham Zusi, and fifth in key passes per game. (Key passes are passes that lead directly to shots.)

His excellent passing ability in the final third didn’t suddenly emerge with his move to midfield. He assisted on 20 goals during his first two years with the Union, when he played striker.

Le Toux has operated best this season as an auxiliary forward who can also get wide to send in crosses. This was never clearer than in Saturday’s win over D.C. United, when he lined up at left midfield but often slid inside as a left forward. In that role, he found space in the box to flick a header toward Casey for one goal and set up Fabinho’s cross from a more central position for the other goal.

As Union manager John Hackworth has experimented with ways to get Casey, McInerney and Le Toux on the field together, a challenge has been figuring out where Le Toux fits best. McInerney is a poacher, Casey is the prototypical target man, and Le Toux is the tireless roamer with great passing vision. Hackworth has tried Le Toux on both flanks, where the Frenchman has decent but not spectacular when functioning as a true midfielder.

The trick is finding the best lineup in which Le Toux can function as a hybrid midfielder/forward, not pulled too far out of his striker comfort zone but providing just enough support for the midfield and space for Casey and McInerney.

To do that in the Union’s (ostensible) 4-1-3-2 formation, the Union need an out-and-out wide midfielder opposite Le Toux to support the possession game and make life easier on the center attacking midfielder. (An attacking left back also helps provide width if Le Toux is deployed on the left and cuts inside often.) More often than not, that wide midfielder has been Danny Cruz.

As has been well-documented, Cruz is more of a long ball threat and plays little role in the Union’s possession game. Among MLS regulars, Cruz ranks 210th in attempted passes per game (18.5), not including crosses.  The only regular starting midfielders with lower rates are Fabian Castillo of Dallas (15.7) and Chicago’s Dilly Duka (15.3), and Cruz averages significantly more minutes (67.1) than Castillo (57.4) or Duka (55.7). (A better stat would be the minutes-to-pass ratio. Cruz appears to be last among starting MLS midfielders in that ratio, attempting one pass per 3.63 minutes, but I haven’t seen league-wide rankings for that stat.)

When deployed together, Cruz and Le Toux essentially turn the Union formation into a 4-2-4 of sorts. (That’s an oversimplification; see here for a better explanation.) This adds pressure on the central attacking midfielder and forces Casey and McInerney to come deeper into the midfield to find the ball more often. Hence, the Union often cede possession, relying on Le Toux’s set pieces and quick strikes and counterattacks from their excellent forward corps instead of buildup from midfield.

If Le Toux can be effective as a left midfielder/forward, it opens the right side for the return of Michael Farfan, who showed once again Saturday that he is the Union’s best right midfielder and should be moved back to his natural position. Compare Farfan’s performance with that of Cruz on Saturday:

  • Farfan completed 11 passes, including one cross, in 21 minutes (plus stoppage time).
  • Cruz completed 13 passes, including one cross, in 69 minutes.

That brings us back to Cruz, of course, and Hackworth has shown no indication he will take the hard-nosed but often ineffective winger out of the starting lineup. But this column isn’t about Cruz.

It’s about Le Toux. Despite outside misconceptions, Le Toux hasn’t reinvented himself as a midfielder. He has simply revealed himself as what he always was: A dedicated, hard-working, good soccer player who will put in the effort to make himself and his team better.

Random Union notes
  • Keon Daniel started both goal sequences. Watch here and here. He also completed 51 of 54 passes. Unlike in many of his games, he sent many of those passes forward. Solid game.
  • Conor Casey and Le Toux are the Comeback Player[s] of the Year for MLS. Really, it’s a toss-up between them. Le Toux probably won’t get considered, but he should be after what he endured last season.
  • Casey has scored 7 goals in his last 9 games. He could be a dark horse MVP candidate if he continues at this level of play.
  • D.C. United is moving in the right direction with some of their recent signings. This time next year, they could be a good team again if they can clear the dead weight off their salary budget (Dejan Jakovic, etc.). A good United is good for the Union, because it makes the Union’s best and most intense rivalry even better.
  • Fabinho and Gilberto are making about $80,000 apiece their first season with the Union, according to figures recently released by the MLS Players Union. That’s not breaking the bank, but it’s more than you’d expect for washouts from the A-League and Brazil’s second division. If the Union were smart — and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt — they signed each to six-month deals, with the Union holding options on renewing the contracts for subsequent years.
  • Oka Nikolov came in at the league minimum salary. He’s a bargain.


  1. Call me crazy, but Le Toux at CAM?

    • I was just thinking the same thing.

    • WilkersonMcLaser says:


      Marfan playmaking on the right, Cruz on the left. Le Toux playing right underneath Jack Mac with Caroll and [insert capable b2bmf here] behind him. Casey the sledge hammer up top.

      • That ends up as too many people – you can’t have Seba as the (sort of) CAM and have a box-to-box mid in as well, unless you take somebody else out of course.

    • No no no no no. Did you miss when Dan said this: “His ball-handling is not sufficient to regularly hold possession while under pressure, and he can’t break a defender down off the dribble like Michael Farfan can“?? Or do you just disagree with him?

      Putting LeToux in the center of the pitch will put him out of position to put in crosses, which has been one of his biggest strengths. It will also highlight his errant passing under pressure, which is one of his biggest weaknesses.

      The only good argument for putting him there is that he has the engine for that physically demanding role, and he does get back and play D. But the guy cannot be a CAM.

      • Yeah, I think Scott is right here. Hackworth is making the right decisions in how he experiments with Le Toux, Casey and McInerney. It’s a process, probably one in which you gradually fine-tune things to help the team as a whole. And Hackworth is doing that.

        That’s why the player on the other flank (and his side’s fullback) is so important. In allowing Le Toux to play to his striker strengths as an ostensible midfielder, you need to also account for his weaknesses with the right players on the other flank and his side’s fullback.

      • Thanks. LeToux as CAM will be a waste of CAM. It may be interesting to compare league wide :-

        Number of inaccurate crosses (and therefore % of crossing accuracy)

        % of Union goals coming from, or directly after set pieces (i mean Sheanon is near the top in assists from his throw-ins too). If i had to guess, then since Seba is our set-piece taker (along with Keon) that his high assists total is because of that.

  2. Out of curiosity yesterday, I went looking around for what the MLS record is for assists in a season. I had a hard time finding it – though my google-fu is weak like a ninja – so I had to rely on going year-by-year through MLS’s stats page.
    The record seems to be held by Carlos Valderrama, who had 26 assists for Tampa Bay back in 2000. That is obviously out of reach for Le Toux this season.
    However, second place seems to be within range for him. Unless I missed one (highly possible), it looks like four players are tied for second with 19 assists a piece: Marco Etcheverry of DC in 1996, Valderrama in 1998, Steve Ralston of NE in 2002, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto of Columbus in 2008.
    With only 10 games left, getting up to 19 on the year is a bit of a longshot, but certainly within reach.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Keon’s 51 of 54 completed passes might be a little misleading. I remember one corner kick that came out to Keon near midfield with no one else around. He made a lateral pass to a wide open Fabinho who was also back and almost missed him. Fabinho was able to chase it down before it went out of bounds. If anyone on DC United had been in the area, it would have been a breakaway the other way.

  4. Glad that Keon is getting his due credit this week. I’ve always felt like he’s gotten a bit unfairly criticized for playing Hack’s intended 2-defensive mids plan while we all want to see more attacking from the midfield. Andy above still can’t see it, but he had a really good game for us. Not only his two key plays that started the buildup for the two goals, but he also had at least two others that lead to good chances. Quit hating on Keon already!

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I try to root for Keon, I really try…Maybe it was the angle I was seeing him from, but it seemed like there were several times Saturday that he could have hustled for a ball but instead just watched it go by. (Plus, I was just trying to make the point that having a high percentage of passes completed may be a little misleading.)

      • I hear you, but if you go back and look at the quality of his passing, he actually had some of the best vertical passing we’ve seen in a while.

      • I agree here, I really started this year off liking Keon, but he has slowly and surely worn me down to the point where I cringe and debate watching the game when I see his name in the lineup (which is hard bc I savor these games and usually watch 2-3 times).
        The guy just doesn’t do it, he lacks intensity, rarely goes for the hard play, and just always takes the easy route.
        I mean think about the praise for him this week, “he actually had some of his passes go forward this week, I swear!”. Pretty damning stuff.
        In 1300 mins the guy has ZERO goals (behind 2 def and the CDM), ONE assist, (Fabinho has 2!)… How is this possible?
        Boy though, he sure is calm on the ball I guess

      • +1 forever

      • Southside Johnny says:

        I can go both ways with Keon and I guess that’s part of my problem with him. He has had piss poor games as well as pretty decent games this year. He always has his moments as he did in this game and his defense is way better than early in the season, but this year he almost never shows his attacking abilities like he does with his national team. As far as passing percentages, I’m not impresssed. He way too often personifies purposeless possession.

    • I may be the capo in the Deport Keon crime family, but will admit he played competently against the worst team in MLS who deployed an almost 60% reserve side. So…way to go Keon.

      I did catch myself saying,”Wow, Keon doesn’t suck this week. Oh, that guy is really a USL player. Right.”

      And can we start to re-define Cruz? Is he actually “hard nosed” or would “hard headed” be a better fit? Does anyone dive more than him on the team? Did you see his yellow card in slow motion? He kicks the guy in the ankle from behind and then kicks the ball out of his hand. Dangerous and stupid. He goes down with light contact faster than my prom date. Both were embarassing.

      • I don’t know. Suggestions on how to label Cruz are very welcome. We’re running out of terms. There honestly isn’t another player like him in MLS.

      • Southside Johnny says:

        May I suggest “one hell of a running back” as a label?

      • Southside Johnny says:

        BTW, Dan, “there isn’t another player like him in MLS” because all the players like him are playing in the PDFL.

    • Well, we try to give Keon (and every player) his due every week. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s not.

  5. I’m grateful you made the post. It’s cleared the air for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *