For Pete's Sake

Everything goes right on Le Toux’s night

Photo: Earl Gardner

The only thing that wasn’t perfect was the sky.

For so many summer evenings down by the Delaware River, Union fans have enjoyed one of the most spectacular views in American sports — Talen Energy Stadium as the sun sets and the sky changes from blue to gold to pink and, finally, to blackness.

It would have been too perfect for the sky to comply on Saturday night, the night Sebastien Le Toux saw his name immortalized in giant letters on the stadium’s newly created ring of honor.

(“The signage — you’d think they’d renamed the stadium after him from the size of it,” said an deadpan Jim Curtin during an atypically playful post-game press conference. He wasn’t wrong.)

Alas, Mother Nature failed to cooperate. Though the promised thunderstorms never arrived, the sky stayed dark and grey, a somewhat gloomy cap to what was otherwise a jubilant day for the Philadelphia Union and their fans.

The Union have had too few perfect moments in their brief history.

The pairing of a utterly dominant 4-0 thrashing of Vancouver with a classy ceremony for the teams legendary player is as close to perfect as it’s felt in some time.

A perfect tribute

For many of the rambunctious crowd in attendance, Saturday night was all about Le Toux.

Enough has been written in these pages and elsewhere about the Union’s sole franchise icon. Until this club makes new memories, Le Toux is in a class all by himself. You could feel the oft-discussed bond between Le Toux and the fans in the park on Saturday, whether the hundreds of fans wearing one of his many Union kits or in the tears that streamed down the Frenchman’s face as he addressed the crowd.

I’m not immune to the love affair. There’s a reason this was the first game I saw in Chester this year. There’s a reason that my parents — not season-ticket holders by any means — snapped up tickets to this game not long after the club announced that this would be Le Toux’s night.

The occasion was right. How often can we say that about the Union? A franchise and an organization best known for a certain level of incompetence executed about as classy a ceremony as possible. The video tributes were perfect, especially the video messages from ex-players both beloved (Conor Casey! Tranquillo Barnetta!) and largely forgotten (Kyle Nakazawa!).

Honestly, it could have been awkward. Le Toux twice left the franchise against his will, two trades that look even worse in retrospect than they did at the time.

None of that, though, mattered on Saturday. This farewell, finally, was on Le Toux’s terms, and after the sign was unveiled and the fireworks went off he summarized his relationship with the team as only he could.

“I was doing a little joke with my friends, you know. They traded me once, they traded me twice, but now I’m here forever. And no one can trade me from that.”

Rising to the occasion

How the Union on the pitch would respond to the atmosphere off it was, of course, always an open question. While the club found some good form in May, they entered Saturday’s match losers of two straight in MLS. Worse still, the fallout of Haris Medunjanin’s confrontation with Sorin Stoica in the Atlanta game continued, with the Bosnian’s suspension set to continue through the end of the month. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see a relatively hot Vancouver Whitecaps squad come in and grind out a result against the Union.

That’s, uh, not what happened.

The Union controlled the match more thoroughly than just about any in recent memory. Vancouver barely found their way out of their own half. Any forays forward were snuffed out by aggressive defensive play, led by teenage dynamo Auston Trusty and mid-twenties non-dynamo Warren Creavalle.

On offense, the Union piled on the pressure with a rare sense of purpose. It’s tough to think of a worse matchup for poor Brek Shea, who’s not a left back, then having to play left back against the onslaught of Borek Dockal, Ilsinho, Alejandro Bedoya, and Keegan Rosenberry plowing down the right side. Shea, who in appearance and manner has always reminded this correspondent of an overlarge chicken, spent most of the match running around like a chicken with his head cut off, with Dockal roasting him for a brace.

Palpable from the stands was the squad’s sense of confidence. The Union took throw-ins and corner kicks as quickly as they could in the offensive end, unwilling to let Vancouver take even a moment to get their whole situation sorted out. The net result of the Union’s pressure? A double substitution at halftime by Carl Robinson, a pair of red cards, and four goals by the home side.

Most impressively of all, this offensive performance came about with almost no assistance from the club’s starting striker. The topic has been beaten to death by this point, but C.J. Sapong currently offers no scoring threat at the top of the formation — he’s not making the right runs, and when he does get to a good spot his finishing leaves pretty much everything to be desired. Cory Burke may be raw, but it’s tough to argue with a penalty earned and the three goals the Union produced with him on the pitch.

At the end of the day, neither Burke nor Sapong is a star, and that lack of a star striker might eventually be this team’s downfall.

But there’s enough attacking talent from the other positions — Dockal, Ilsinho, and Picault — that, when they’re all on their game, the Union can be potent even with a black hole up top.

What comes next

Things don’t get easier for the Union this week.

Even without Carlos Vela, LAFC are an impressive side — deep, well-constructed, and led by one of MLS’s best coaches. A cross-country flight won’t help the Union, and Medunjanin still has a game left on his suspension. Atlanta United looms again the week after.

As we hit the halfway point of the season, the Union have a real opportunity to prove what they can do. To show the league that performances like Saturday’s were more than a fluke.

There might not be many summer nights as perfect as Saturday’s.

But if the club plays like that more often, Union fans may spend an evening at Talen Energy Stadium — in November.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


%d bloggers like this: