When the Philadelphia Union play Wednesday night at Lincoln Financial Field against Manchester United, one of the most celebrated soccer clubs of the world, there will be players on the visiting side who have reached the virtual pinnacle of their sport and, for the most part, players on the home side who wouldn't mind changing places.
Sports is not always fair. There are players in every game who achieve their fondest dreams with help from being at the right place at the right time, by catching the right eye, by arriving on the scene by a path that makes the journey smoother. And there are others, equally talented, who stumble along the way because of this roadblock or that injury or some piece of bad luck.
Sebastien Le Toux, the leading scorer for the Union, has a career that has been more of the latter than the former, but if he traded shirts before the match Wednesday night rather than afterward, Le Toux probably would fit right in with the Manchester side.
Professional athletes must become good at accepting what-is instead of dwelling on what-if, and Le Toux is happy to be in Major League Soccer and proud to be part of an expansion team that has often struggled.
Still, there are moments.
This season, Le Toux has seven goals and seven assists for the Union. He was named to the MLS all-star team Monday, and his career seems to be taking shape.
"I try to focus every day, every year, with more experience and more games, on getting better and stronger. I progress every day, and there is a lot of room for progress," Le Toux, 26, said Saturday after scoring a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win over Toronto FC. "There is no end to progression. There is no end."
At times, his journey must have seemed endless, but Le Toux has finally found a time and place where his skills are on display. The same eyes that overlooked him before must be finding him now, and there is no telling where the road will lead.
"He's a very good player. He has an instinct for the ball," teammate Alejandro Moreno said. "And, no pun intended, has a nose for the goal as well."
Le Toux, in fact, has a prominent nose that protrudes beneath deep-set, dark eyes like a hill in his native Brittany riding under storm clouds. Perhaps saying he has a nose for the goal is unkind, however, Moreno is told.
"You can use it if you want to," Moreno said. "It's not like it's a secret."
Growing up in Rennes, France, Le Toux was enrolled in dance classes by his mother, but he wanted to play soccer, as his older brother did. He played it well enough to make the good local school teams and, at 13, joined the junior program of Stade Rennais FC, a team in the French first division.
At the end of that stint, at 17, he was offered a contract at the local soccer academy, another step in the feeder program to the big team, and had the experience of winning a junior championship, the Coupe Gambardella, at the immense Stade de France.
The path that seemed to clear took a turn, however, when he wasn't offered a contract by Stade Rennais FC at age 19. He was signed instead by FC Lorient, a second-division team in Brittany.
Le Toux played there two seasons, appearing in 12 games and getting 963 minutes the first year, and then three games and 217 minutes the next.
Seeking a more promising opportunity, Le Toux traveled to the United States to take part in a tryout combine organized by FC Dallas of MLS. He didn't get an MLS job, but he was signed by the Seattle Sounders, then playing in the USL, a step below.
The Sounders wanted to make the 6-foot-1 Le Toux a defender, but he worked steadily toward the front of the formation and had two fairly successful seasons as a combination midfielder/striker. When that team became an MLS expansion franchise last season, Le Toux was the first player signed.
Last season was difficult, though. He scored just one goal, had three assists, and started only 15 of 28 games, another sidestep along the road.
"It was a new coach, new players, a lot of adaptation, and I was fighting to keep my position on top [at forward]. That's where I really love to play," Le Toux said. "The coach put me at midfield with not so much freedom. I was always feeling under pressure."
Left unprotected in the expansion draft, he was selected by the Union, and coach Peter Nowak has given him the freedom he was seeking. He has started at both forward and midfielder, but always with the green light to take the ball forward, or to switch positions on the fly.
"When I'm at midfield, I can go back for the ball and then make longer runs. They let me do what I feel I should do," Le Toux said. "It's nice to play again like a kid at recess or after school. That's what I missed last year, and I have refound that here."
There are still dreams, and those never change. Le Toux said he put too much pressure on himself and was often scared to make a mistake when he was trying to climb the pyramid of French soccer. Older now, he is seeing what his game might become.
"I have rediscovered the joy of playing and the pleasure of being on the field," he said.
France might only now be realizing what it missed. With the French national program in shambles after a disastrous World Cup, and with new coach Laurent Blanc in place, there might be room for a different approach.
"Sometimes, in my little head, I am dreaming like everyone else," Le Toux said. "I know it is dreaming, but if you are 20 or 40 or 60, if you're not dreaming anymore, then life gets boring. So, of course, I'm dreaming I can keep getting better and maybe play for the national team one day. We'll see. We never know what can happen."
Failing that, there is a national team in the area that could use some scoring help, too, and Le Toux has been around long enough to gain dual citizenship.
As he said, we never know. There is only the path, and in the match against Manchester United, that path crosses those who have either been better or maybe just a little luckier. Without the shirts, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between them.
Union vs. Manchester United
at 7:30 p.m., Lincoln Financial Field (ESPN2)