Major League Soccer has grown as a league in its 28-year history, from Soccer Specific Stadiums, improving academies, to young superstar signings, no one can deny MLS is a league on the rise and has become a league of choice. It is not uncommon for MLS teams to now spend between $15-20 million on a certain player, and long gone is the time MLS teams are looking for aging stars to gain notoriety and attention in their respective markets.
Still, while it’s always great to think about players like Carlos Vela, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Carlos Valderrama, and David Villa, one can’t help but remember some of the duds, flops, and misfires of some of the teams in MLS.
While this is not a ranking per say of the worst signings in MLS history, we will cover the 28 years of the league and not just the DP era. Many names you will recognize, others we will need to remind you of, but in 28 years the league has had some major flop signings. Here are the worst signings in MLS history.
Joao Luiz is one of the biggest mysteries of the early days in MLS. In 1997 the MetroStars signed World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira to lead the team in a shock if not confusing move, given that Parreira had won the World Cup only three years earlier with Brazil. Upon his arrival Carlos Alberto Parreira signed the only American player he could recall from USA 94, Mike Sorber and from his native Brazil most of the star players he wanted, Juninho Paulista for example, were vetoed by MLS due to the heavy salary cap restrictions.
Parreira would eventually get two Brazilians, Guido, of a modest soccer background, and Joao Luiz, a player according to record coming from Vasco Da Gama. Joao Luiz was a “defender” but played only 7 games for the MetroStars and was cut soon after 1997. Records indicate that Joao Luiz seems to have been at Fluminense, América-MG, Vasco, and MetroStars in a three-year period, then retired. It was long rumored that Joao Luiz was actually a carpenter that Parreira knew but that has been put to bed because some records show there was a Joao Luiz and that he did play for Vasco da Gama… well played never but was at Vasco.
Fredrik Ljungberg was a big name signing for the Seattle Sounders when they entered MLS in 2009, while the Sounders hit the ground running one player was not impressive at all and that was Fredrik Ljungberg. Gone was the speed that characterized the Swede from his Arsenal days and he would be traded to the Chicago Fire before heading off to Celtic in Scotland.
Rais M' Bohli
Algerian goalkeeper Rais M' Bohli came to MLS in 2014 and was dreadful for the Philadelphia Union, playing only 9 games. Fans have voted Rais M' Bohli as the worst player ever signed by the Philadelphia Union who came with some pedigree prior.
Lost in the sands of time was the signing of Ecuadorian midfielder and heir apparent to Álex Aguinaga, Wellington Sánchez by the MetroStars in 1998. This was a major move for the young league as Sánchez was seen as a hot prospect in South America. Expectations were high on the man who was given the number 7 jersey and asked to replace Roberto Donadoni, who had returned to A.C. Milan. What followed was strange indeed, Sánchez played only 1 game as a substitute for the MetroStars, he was traded to the L.A. Galaxy and in 2 years played only 12 games for L.A. scoring 1 goal.
Nelson Haedo Valdez
The paraguayan forward Nelson Valdez came to the Seattle Sounders with a pedigree of a goal scorer, which he was. While Valdez left everything on the field, you can’t blame his lack of trying, it just never clicked. He scored 1 goal in 31 games, but scored a critical playoff goal that got the Sounders to the 2016 MLS Cup final. So, he did something right.
For every Valeri and Seba Blanco, the Timbers have struckout on other signings, Lucas Melano signed with Portland after a huge, at the time, transfer fee of $5 million. Melano was extremely underwhelming for a player with a DP tag. 5 goals in 59 outings he did manage to win the 2015 MLS Cup but not after being in and out of the lineup.
Rubén Darío Hernández
Rubén Darío Hernández was the original MetroStars savior, that player that would elevate the team to greatness. He didn’t, in 1996 the skilled but goalless forward left the MetroStars after 10 games and 0 goals to make way for Anthony De Avila. Hernández began a legacy of high profile players that produced little for the MetroStars/ Red Bulls.
MLS has another legacy they don’t like to admit, a legacy of flop Mexican superstar signings, Nery Castillo, came to the Chicago Fire to try and save a career that was falling apart. Castillo already had a history of being difficult on and off the field. The Fire took a gamble and it failed miserably. Nery Castillo played a total of 8 games for the Fire in 2010.
Yugoslavian midfielder Saša Ćurčić was the icing on the cake in arguably the worst season of any team in MLS history. The 1999 MetroStars were a horrid team and in an effort to save a season that saw the team lose 12 in a row during the summer, the brass signed Saša Ćurčić. Ćurčić came to MLS from Crystal Palace and was into techno music, forgetting his cleats at practice, and almost missing a team trip due to “over sleeping”. When Ćurčić arrived, he asked the supporters if anyone could get him in for free at Webster Hall. Throughout the buffoonery Ćurčić still managed to score 2 goals in 9 games and was cut right after the season ended.
The first World Cup winner to ever play in MLS was from the reigning champions at the time, Brazil (1994). Branco was a top left back, once, who came to MLS in 1997 to play for the ailing MetroStars. To say that Branco was a flop is an understatement. He played in only 11 games and scored 1 goal, he was sent off twice, once for spitting at an opponent. He chained smoked, was overweight, and was let go quickly as the 97 season ended.
This one hurts, many new USMNT fans may not know the name but John O'Brien was one of the most talented American soccer players in US Soccer history. Smart, quick, and great passer, O'Brien was a mainstay at Ajax and scored the USMNT’s first goal against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup. Unfortunately, injuries had sidelined his career considerably and after trying to revive it in Europe, O'Brien tried his luck at Chivas USA, he got injured again and played all of 1 game. A sad end to such a great talent.
Any Italian player that comes to MLS has a high bar to achieve, MLS was home to Roberto Donadoni and Sebastian Giovinco. Antonio Nocerino came to MLS at the tail end of his career after stops at AC Milan and West Ham, Nocerino was bang average playing in 2 seasons.
Crafty Venezuelan international Yeferson Soteldo was a major disappointment for Toronto FC, costing the club $6.5 million. Soteldo looked completely lost on a side that was equally as bad. 3 goals in 24 games is all the TFC fans got in Soteldo’s lone season in MLS as he was sold to LigaMX side Tigres.
Portuguese youth international André Horta was LAFC’s first major work in progress young gun. Unfortunately, MLS and Horta was not a good marriage, often not seeing eye to eye with Bob Bradley, Horta was often the first off the field when starting and never really impressed in 15 games and left midway through 2019.
Kris Boyd was the Timbers second DP in their history, he arrived with great expectations in 2012 from Scotland where he had scored 164 goals in 296 games. Boyd could only score 7 goals in 26 outings in MLS. He played only 1 season in Portland and was cut by 2013, he earned $1.5 million for his lone season.
The definition of everything MLS does not want to be. Matthäus MLS journey began shortly after the 1999 Champions League Final against Manchester United, you can say that the 38-year-old, 1990 World Cup winner, was one of the best players on the field until he was subbed out that night. When he did arrive in New York to be presented to the media he told local press, while posing for pictures in Times Square, he was a German basketball player signed by the Knicks. It seemed to Matthäus that playing in MLS was a joke, it looked that way, he played 16 games, when he was “injured” Matthäus was photographed in St. Tropez getting a tan. Incredibly Matthäus speaks wonders about the emerging MLS as a pundit in Germany. Go figure…
This one is hard, because we all know Reyna wanted to make it work, but unfortunately injuries had caught up to Claudio Reyna. After a storied career in Europe, one of the USMNT all-time greats came to the New York Red Bulls to finish his career, and it looked that way as Reyna played only 28 games in two seasons and scored 0 goals.
Luis Ángel Landín
Luis Ángel Landín might not have been the biggest global name to come to MLS, but he was known to Liga MX fans. The Houston Dynamo’s first ever DP came to the league in 2009. Landin was hurt more often than not and only played 16 games and scored 2 goals.
Toronto FC struckout a lot in their early DP history, Spanish forward Mista was one of those strikeouts. Mista played 10 games in 2010 and that was about it. He did nothing for Toronto FC and was cut soon after.
Told you Toronto FC struckout, Gilberto was a Brazilan forward that TFC paid a $3 million transfer fee for. In his two seasons with the club the big target man did not set the league on fire, he scored 7 goals in 28 games. TFC traded him to Chicago where he played even worse in 2 seasons he scored 5 goals in 19 games.
Giovani dos Santos
Until the arrival of Carlos Vela you have to go back to Jorge Campos for a big-name Mexican player having any kind of success in MLS. Okay Blanco too. Giovani dos Santos signed with the LA Galaxy in hopes of rejuvenating a lackluster career, signed to a mega deal, one that tied the Galaxy tremendously, dos Santos did what he has always done, flashes of brilliance mixed with poor underwhelming performances. dos Santos played in 77 games and scored 26 goals, the Galaxy did not win a major title and after it was over the Galaxy bought out his deal, at least brother Johnathan did a little better.
Denilson won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002 after being the highest transferred player ever when he moved from Sao Paulo to Real Betis in 1998. By 2007 Denilson was an unwanted commodity having bounced around France and Saudi Arabia, still on the national team he showed incredible talent. The Brazilian came to F.C. Dallas with high hopes but unfortunately, he did not play well at all. He scored 1 goal in 8 games.
Uruguayan international Brian Rodríguez came to the league at a reported $8 million fee, already capped by Uruguay the electric Rodríguez was set to be a mainstay in the LAFC lineup and be sold for big bucks to Europe. Despite being talented, Rodríguez never took MLS by storm, every time it seemed the Uruguayan had found his footing, enter his agent, who pushed LAFC for an ill-advised loan to the Spanish second division and then eventually was able to get his client sold to Club America for a much lesser fee than LAFC paid for him, $6 million. In total Brian Rodríguez produced lukewarm numbers of 8 goals in 55 games.
Luis Hernández might not be the worst in terms of production, but he makes the list because even Don Garber, MLS Commissioner, has stated in various interviews it was one of his biggest mistakes as a Commissioner approving the $4 million transfer of the Mexican fan favorite. While Hernández scored 15 goals in 40 games for the Galaxy, despite the initial buzz when he signed with the team, by 10 games it had faded. Luis Hernández was signed to put MLS on the map at least in the North America/ hispanic community level, and it just did not happen.
Mexican international Rodolfo Pizarro was yet another overpriced player from LigaMX, another player to disappoint, and another player shipped off leaving a huge hole in Inter Miami’s pocket. 7 goals in 46 outings of which he had a stretch of good games mixed with some stinkers.
Nothing went right for Frank Lampard in MLS, at the last minute he stayed in England to play for sister club Manchester City to help them win the EPL title, which they did not, once he did arrive in MLS he found the travel and hot weather difficult to bear. While Lampard showed flashes of brilliance, he scored 15 goals in 29 games, 10 games in 2015 and 19 games in 2016 is not enough for a player making $6 million dollars a year.
One of the most expensive signings in MLS history belongs to Argentine international, Esequiel Barco. Barco came to MLS after making his mark in Independiente, but reports have it that Tata Martino was not keen on spending $15 million on a young player he did not see as ready for the responsibility of such a tag. Martino was right, Barco’s MLS time has been rather incomplete, his ability and scoring power came in spurts, Barco scored 17 goals in 81 games with 2021 being his best season. It’s Barco’s maturity that came under question, he had personal issues with a teammate’s girlfriend during the Tata Martino era and was suspended and benched virtually until the coach left the team, under Frank de Boer all of Atlanta was a mess, so he gets a pass, and when things looked good in 2021 Barco was loaned to River Plate for 2022 since the club has had problems selling the player for the fee they desire and quickly went out to spend even more on Thiago Almada.
Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez
The worst signing of the modern age DP, Pity Martinez came to MLS as the South American player of the year, after a rather hot and cold stay at River Plate. Scoring the game winning goal of the Copa Libertadores final against Boca Juniors, no one was hotter than Pity coming out of South America. In MLS, Pity was again hot and cold, often playing underwhelming game after underwhelming game for an Atlanta United side that was beginning it’s downward spiral. Pity was sold to Al-Nassr for $18 million, his MLS stats are a meager 7 goals in 39 games. Pity did win 2 titles with Atlanta though.
Unanimously voted by MLS fans as the worst player ever signed by MLS, Rafael Márquez was a case of the blues every way you look at it. Márquez played three seasons with the New York Red Bulls, mostly because no team would take him by year 2, he was red carded often, including getting a red card in an important playoff game that left the Red Bulls in a massive hole. Rafael Márquez publicly criticized his teammates as beneath him, let’s not forget two of his teammates were Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. Márquez endeared himself more to MLS fans when he called his move to the league the worst decision he ever made in his career. There is a word for a guy like this…