MLS is a melting pot of players from all over the world, from Europe, South America, Asia, it truly is a global league. When it comes to big name signings the league has its share,David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Carlos Valderrama, or a Jorge Campos.
Compiling a list of the best imports in any league can be hard, there have been many great Argentine, Colombian, and World Cup winning players in MLS. When it comes to the European talents, we are examining name value, influence at their club, and honorable mentions. Not featured on the list are Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard who while had acceptable stints in MLS, they did not crack the best of the best.
This list goes back all the way to 1996, when the league kicked off, and mentions those European players who pioneered the way to MLS in the early days. Here are 25 top European players to have played in MLS.
When Bastian Schweinsteiger came to MLS, he was expected to elevate the Chicago Fire, he did in a way, helping the club break a five-year drought in the MLS playoffs. Schweinsteiger was a class professional and while the Fire was at times below the German World Cup winner, Schweinsteiger was worth the price of admission. 8 goals in 85 games.
Roberto Donadoni was one of MLS biggest signings in its inaugural season in 1996. Donadoni was a workhorse player for the legendary AC Milan teams of the 1990’s, in MLS he set a standard for a foreign import. Donadoni was pure class on and off the field, a league that was below his level he trained harder, worked harder and even returned to the Italian national team to play in Euro 1996. A true example of what a name player must be, Donadoni played only 2 seasons in MLS and what did the Italian maestro do after 1997? He returned to AC Milan.
The French midfielder was a terror down the flank for the LA Galaxy, Romain Alessandrini scored 24 goals in 61 games, and while the club did not win any silverware during his time, Alessandrini was one of the few last home run signings for the Galaxy.
The legendary Bulgarian forward Hristo Stoichkov came to MLS in 2000 and played very well for the Chicago Fire, again a name player leading by example, winning the US Open Cup in 2000. When he was traded to DC United in 2003, DC got a slower and crankier version of Stoichkov. Nonetheless Stoichkov was a very good signing for MLS.
Marco Di Vaio
Italian forward Marco Di Vaio signed with the then Montreal Impact and scored 34 goals in 76 games, he helped the club win two Canadian Championships in 2013 and 2014. The Impact would eventually sign better players in Piatti and Drogba, but Di Vaio was a home run DP.
Lost in the sands of time could be the signing of Scottish international Mo Johnston to the Kansas City Wizards in 1996. Johnston played from 1996-2001, scoring 31 goals in 149 games. He formed a great partnership with Preki and won the MLS Cup and the Supporters Shield in 2000.
Some names may not be as glamorous but are equally as important, Daniel Royer played over 100 games for the New York Red Bulls and scored 39 goals being a menace on the wings. 2020 and 2021 saw a dip in form but fans should not forget how important Royer was to the New York team’s attack.
Another Red Bull, Joel Lindpere was all about hard work in New York. Lindpere was a fan favorite for his hustle and his leadership on the field. He scored 17 goals in 104 appearances for the club in three seasons, Lindpere was an ironman in the Red Bulls midfield.
Recently crowned MLS champion defender Maxime Chanot has been a leader at the back for NYCFC, putting in a memorable MLS Cup performance. Chanot has been with the club since 2016 and will now lead them in 2022 as the team to beat in all of MLS.
Polish midfielder Robert Warzycha was one of the Columbus Crew’s first major signings in 1996 and played until 2002 with the club. Warzycha was an example and leader on the field, winning the US Open Cup in 2002 and becoming the club’s head coach from 2009-2013.
Nani is on this list because the Portuguese midfielder’s arrival to Orlando City was crucial in getting the Lions out of their MLS funk. Nani scored some amazing goals in MLS and in total netted 28 times in 76 games. Nani was an All-Star in 2019 and 2021.
Continuing Kansas City’s tradition of Scottish imports, Johnny Russell has been nothing but gold for now Sporting KC. 40 goals in 113 games, Russell has been one of MLS best players since his arrival in 2018, 2021 was his best season to date. Inexplicably not in consideration for the Scottish national team.
Slovakian midfielder Albert Rusnák is still only 27 years old, but he’s an old man at this point in RSL. Rusnák has played 140 games and scored 41 goals for RSL, now entering his sixth season with the club Rusnák has been there from the best of times and the worst.
Silky Spanish midfielder Víctor Vázquez was the final piece of the puzzle to help Toronto FC win the 2017 MLS Cup. Only playing 2 seasons, Vázquez showed his class and skill, while Toronto FC fans may be high on Alejandro Pozuelo’s individual awards, Vázquez’s time had more substance.
Defenders need love too, Laurent Ciman was a rock for the Impact and a leader at LAFC. Considered one of the best MLS defenders in recent memory, the Belgian was a three-time All-Star.
Switzerland netminder Stefan Frei took over the nets in Seattle from Michael Gspurning and has been one of the best keepers in MLS. Frei began his MLS adventure with Toronto and has played over 230 games for the Sounders.
Spain has provided many great imports to MLS in recent memory and one that most stands out is Carles Gil of the New England Revolution. Gil received many individual awards since joining the Revs in 2019 and anchored the team in their record setting 2021 season.
Polish midfielder Piotr Nowak was a classic number 10 that helped lead the Chicago Fire to the 1998 MLS Cup. Nowak also won 2 US Open Cups with the club playing in 114 games and getting 16 goals.
The Atomic Ant, Sebastian Giovinco came to MLS in a record transfer from Juventus in 2015 to Toronto FC, and the little forward was a goal machine, 68 goals in 114 games. 1 MLS Cup, 1 Supporters Shields, and 3 Canadian championships. A club legend.
In search of a new challenge David Villa came to expansion side NYCFC and delivered in every aspect, a role model to the young players and a name to get people through the gates. Villa netted 80 times in 124 games and helped get NYCFC off the ground.
Irish international Robbie Keane came to the Galaxy by way of the Premier League, and was an instant hit, scoring 83 goals in 125 games. Keane was a leader and won 3 MLS Cups.
MLS is a league where a $20 million dollar signing struggles and a Championship forward is one of the league’s top scorers. BWP is a Red Bulls legend, and one of MLS all-time best strikers.
The man who invented the DP rule, the signing that may have saved MLS from oblivion, David Beckham raised the league’s profile, turned Beckham into a team owner and was world news every time he scored. It was not always rosy, but David Beckham is an MLS all-time best, even though he wanted out on many occasions.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic raised the bar, he outdid Beckham who was so squeaky clean, Zlatan was the best villain the league ever had. He scored goals, belittled his opponents, belittled his teammates, but was a pure winner. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was simply a superstar; one the league badly misses.
The greatest European import in MLS history is Thierry Henry, why? The class, the goals, the leadership, the example. Henry was tailor made for New York, Henry was tailor made for MLS, Henry is simply a tailor-made soccer player. Few in MLS have connected the dots like Henry, he scored, he was elegant, he was well spoken, and was a perfect ambassador to MLS. A CLASS ACT.