When a team loses a starting striker, the offense figures to take a major hit. When that starting striker happens to be one of Major League Soccer’s all-time leading scorers, the problem is only amplified.
For the Philadelphia Union, however, there’s actually a benefit to the absence of Carlos Ruiz, who’s currently on Gold Cup duty with Guatemala: watching the Sébastien Le Toux-Danny Mwanga combination continue to blossom.
Last year, in Philly’s inaugural season, Le Toux and Mwanga teamed up for 21 goals, 15 assists and even more memorable moments.
Both strikers had slow starts to the 2011 season but are beginning to round into form, especially now with Ruiz temporarily out of the picture. In the past two games — the first two games of the year Ruiz didn’t play in — Mwanga has three goals and Le Toux three assists.
“We liked them last year, so why wouldn’t we like them this year?” Union assistant coach John Hackworth said of the Le Toux-Mwanga pairing up top. “Danny is getting better and better, and we all know what Seba does for us is amazing. He does so much more than what you see in the stat sheet.”
This past Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Rapids showed the kind of teamwork Le Toux and Mwanga enjoy together. With the Union trailing by a goal in the second half, Le Toux drew a defender, dropped it off for Mwanga and then ran toward net, creating enough space for Mwanga to rip a long-range shot into the net and tie the game.
“It was a great combination between me and Sébastien,” Mwanga said following the result. “He played me the ball and then made a really nice run behind the defense, so I think they were caught in a position where they should stay with me or follow Sébastien. But they kind of chose to go with Sébastien and that gave me time to take a shot on goal.”
That goal was sweet redemption for Le Toux, who missed a prime opportunity to score himself in the first half when he took a poor first touch that Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens pounced on after a Jack McInerney through-ball sprung the Frenchman free.
Le Toux, who scored 14 goals in 2010, has just one this season and zero in the run in the play. But he does have a team-leading four assists.
“We all know he can score,” Mwanga said of Le Toux. “But even if he’s not scoring much, he’s still getting assists and still getting other guys opportunities. He’s still a big part of our offense even when he’s not scoring.”
Assists are one reason Le Toux is a big part of the offense. Relentless running, as the hustling Frenchman is known for, is another.
“He’s a tough guy out there,” Mwanga said. “He wants 90 minutes. When you see him run around like that, I think it pushes you as well. For me personally, it’s great motivation.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.