HOUSTON (Reuters) - French striker Thierry Henry’s recent move to Major League Soccer generated publicity for the North American league, but it is a lesser-known Frenchman who has been winning the plaudits in MLS this season.
A hardly-noticed defender with Lorient in his homeland, Sebastien Le Toux’s road to American attention followed a very different route than Henry. Le Toux worked his way up from the U.S. second division to become an MLS All Star who will face Manchester United on Wednesday.
“It was a new start for me to come to the (United) States, I was not planning to come here to America but I love my new life, I like everything here,” the 26-year-old told Reuters.
While Henry’s big-money move earlier this month came near the end of a career full of success with Arsenal in England, Barcelona in Spain and the French national team, Le Toux’s arrival was largely accidental.
The Frenchman failed to impress in a trial with MLS team FC Dallas, but a chance meeting in France with Seattle Sounders General Manager Adrian Hanauer got him another shot.
A switch to a striker role led to an impressive 24 goals in 54 games in the second tier and when the Sounders were handed a spot in MLS, they made sure to sign Le Toux to their team.
Although he played in front of the league’s biggest crowds -- the Sounders averaged over 30,000 -- Le Toux’s story could easily have fizzled on the Pacific coast.
Despite being popular with supporters, he was moved off the front line and given a largely supporting role to Swedish forward Freddie Ljungberg and Colombian talent Fredy Montero.
When the league’s latest expansion team, the Philadelphia Union, began to assess their options in the expansion draft, their coach Peter Nowak noticed Le Toux was available.
“I looked past that one season and saw a player from the seasons before who knew how to score goals and is very useful in every position in the frontline,” Nowak told Reuters.
The Polish-born coach decided he wanted Le Toux to join his new team and to give him another chance at forward.
“He called me and told me he really wanted me for his team and that he saw me as a forward rather than a midfielder, it was great to hear,” said Le Toux, who responded with seven goals in 12 starts. “He has given me confidence.”
Nowak quickly realized the forward from the Northern French town of Mont-Saint-Aignan was much more than a target man.
“We have tried to give him more freedom to pop up at the back, to be the playmaker in certain situations, to go up front and be unpredictable, also from the second line because of his speed and his killer instinct - he gets into the right place at the right time,” said Nowak.
The former U.S. national team assistant coach believes Le Toux now has the talent to make it back home.
“By developing his game in the right direction, with the imagination and creativity, I think he is intelligent enough to embrace Europe or the French league and if there is the chance for him, I will not stand in his way,” he said.
Le Toux says such a prospect is not on his agenda even though his surge in goals and the arrival of Henry has brought him some attention.
“At the beginning no one (in France) really knew that I was here, it is only in the past few months that people have begun to notice me,” he said.
“Now with Thierry Henry coming it has been nice, lots of people are surprised that someone who was a defender in France is now an attacking midfielder or a forward here.”
Le Toux is also surprised to find himself a role model for other players in Europe thinking of making a move Stateside.
“I receive lots of mail from people wanting to come here,” he said. “I’m not an agent, but I tell them ‘come over, do I like I did, pay your plane ticket and give it a go. It’s a nice thing to do.’”
Editing by Frank Pingue
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