The now-extinct North American Soccer League (NASL) boasted some of the world’s biggest talents in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, up until its conclusion in 1985. Historic soccer players such as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Muller, Eusébio, George Best and Carlos Alberto graced the Northamerican pitches for a brief time, but made an ever-lasting impression on United States Soccer. And now, many years later, Major League Soccer (MLS) has followed suit, bringing some of the best talents on earth to play in what was once viewed as a retirement league but has since grown to be a fairly competitive entity.
Ever since David Beckham signed for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 from Real Madrid, at 32 years of age, the league has never been the same. Beckham’s impact wasn’t only on the pitch, where he played 115 times for the LA Galaxy and won two MLS titles, but it was also off it, raising the status of the league to worldwide proportions. Not only did more people start noticing, but according to Alexi Lalas, then-General Manager of the Galaxy, Beckham had a wider appeal than the one even Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo might’ve had if they joined the league. Now, the Englishman owns Inter Miami thanks to a clause included in his player contract that allowed him to buy an MLS franchise for $25 million, according to Rolling Stone magazine, and his legacy has been well and truly established.
And just like Beckham, there are plenty of historic players that have been a part of MLS in the past, but not all of them have been plucked directly from the top European leagues. What about Landon Donovan, four-time MLS champion, seven-time Player of the Year, and second-beast goalscorer in history with 145 goals? Don’t even mention Chris Wondolowski, top goalscorer in league history with 171 goals, two-time MLS champion and the only player to score 10 or more goals in 10 consecutive seasons, the impressive Marco Etcheverry, or the talented and controversial Cuauhtémoc Blanco. However, with the arrival of Lorenzo Insigne, Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale to the league, it’s impossible not to remember the best of the best signed by MLS teams, directly from European clubs.
Date of Birth: 11.17.1986 (35)
Birthplace: Praia, Portugal
Total Stats in MLS: GP 77, GS 64, Mins 5539, Goals 28, Assists 23
Unfortunately for Orlando City fans, they never got to see Nani and Kaká play on the same team together, since Kaká retired two years before the arrival of the skillful Portuguese attacker in February 2019. Back then, Orlando City agreed to a transfer with Liga NOS giant Sporting CP, and secured the services of a highly successful footballer that had played in some of the world’s top leagues: in the Premier League for Manchester United, in Turkey for Fenerbahce, in Spain for Valencia, and in the Serie A for Lazio, among others. His best years were undoubtedly at United under Sir Alex Ferguson, where he played over 200 games, scoring 41 times and assisting in over 70 occasions, according to Transfermarkt. There, he won four Premier Leagues and a UEFA Champions League title, not to mention the 2016 Euro Championship with Portugal. That’s why when he arrived in MLS, the expectations for him were plenty high.
Nani spent three full MLS seasons at Orlando City, playing in 77 games, scoring 28 goals and assisting 23 times. During his stay in the United States, Orlando had a mixed bag of results as a team. In 2019, they finished as the league’s third-worst placed team, managing a mere 37 points from 37 games. Nani, however, was the shining light in the squad, scoring 12 times and assisting on 10 occasions. 2020 was probably one of Orlando City’s best seasons in MLS yet, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference standings and reaching the Conference Semifinals, where they fell against the New England Revolution. In 2021, Nani’s last season at the club, the team made the First Round of the playoffs but fell against Nashville SC. The portuguese star left the club after the 2021 season to join Venezia, but said an emotional goodbye.
“Orlando is a city I can call home, with great people and fantastic supporters, but my contract has ended and there was a decision by the club not to extend it. It was an honor captaining the club for its first-ever playoff appearances and reaching the final of the MLS is Back Tournament”, he wrote on social media.
16. David Villa
Date of Birth: 12.3.1981 (40)
Birthplace: Langreo, Spain
Total Stats in MLS: GP 117, GS 109, Mins 9693, Goals 77, Assists 26
The day was Monday, June 2, 20214. At approximately 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, New York City FC announced David Villa as their new marquee signing. The recognized Spanish striker had just won LaLiga with Atlético de Madrid less than a month before the announcement, participating in 36 games, scoring 13 times and assisting on five occasions. A few weeks before the 2014 FIFA World Cup, in which Villa would play in, the former Barcelona and Valencia legend arriving in Major League Soccer excited the North American fanbase of MLS’ newest team. Villa would go on to play the first half of the 2014/15 season on loan at Melbourne City FC, part of the City Football Group as well as NYCFC, and then join MLS in January 2015 for the team’s inaugural season. Villa initially signed a three year contract but would go on to play four seasons for NYCFC, amassing 117 games, 77 goals and 26 assists.
Villa’s pedigree before playing in MLS was impressive, establishing himself as the all-time leading goalscorer for Spain, being a key element in winning the 2008 Euro and the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as well as winning a myriad of titles for FC Barcelona. In his maiden MLS season, the Spanish striker notched 18 goals and 8 assists, continuing his form in 2016 with 23 goals and 4 assists, in 2017 with 22 goals and 9 assists, and in 2018 with 14 goals and 5 assists. Villa left the club at the end of the 2018 season to play for Japanese side Vissel Kobe for a year before retiring.
15. Wayne Rooney
Date of Birth: 10.24.1985 (36)
Birthplace: Liverpool, England
Total Stats in MLS: GP 48, GS 45, Mins 3959, Goals 23, Assists 15
Wayne Roooney and D.C. United lived two completely different realities when the historic Manchester United and England player arrived in Major League Soccer on June 27, 2018. Rooney had just finished his second stint at Everton, starting in most 2017/18 Premier League games and scoring ten times. D.C. United sat dead last in the MLS Eastern Conference and their new stadium was yet to be inaugurated. That didn’t seem to matter to the five time Premier League champion, UEFA Champions League winner, and Manchester United and England record goalscorer.
Rooney arrived at D.C. on a $13 million, three-and-a-half year contract, according to the Washington Post, which seemed to signal the beginning of what would end up being a highly successful love story. "It is fantastic to be joining D.C. United at such an exciting time in the club’s history with the new stadium opening in just a few weeks…Moving to America and MLS fulfills another career ambition for me. I have the hunger to be a success here and will give D.C. 100 percent”, Rooney said in a club statement. Apparently the attacker wasn’t hungry enough, because he left a little over a year after arriving, cutting his contract short by two and a half years.
In August 2019, Rooney left D.C. United after leading them to the First Round of the 2018 and 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, losing to Columbus Crew and Toronto FC, respectively. Even though he did score 23 goals and managed 15 assists in only 48 games played, his legacy was tainted as he joined Derby County as a player-coach in 2019. When he signed for the historic MLS club in 2018, Rooney said he wanted to return to Washington and see pictures of himself in the locker room, remaining in eternity as a figure to admire. Although nobody can deny that one of England’s all-time greats is one of MLS’ most talented players to have been signed from Europe, it’s only natural to wonder what would’ve happened had he remained in the United States.
14. Didier Drogba
Date of Birth: 3.11.1978 (44)
Birthplace: Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Total Stats in MLS: GP 33, GS 27, Mins 2520, Goals 21, Assists 7
Didier Drogba is one of Chelsea’s all-time best players and one of the Premier League’s most feared strikers in history. He played a huge role in four English league titles for the Blues, and was instrumental in obtaining the 2012 UEFA Champions League title in a dramatic penalty shootout against Bayern Munchen in their own backyard. After scoring over 160 goals for the London-based club, and after stints in China and Turkey, Drogba left Europe and signed for Montréal Impact, the previous name of current club CF Montréal. In July 2015, at 37 years old, the Ivorian striker shook Major League Soccer by arriving in Canada instead of Chicago, as was originally planned, since Chicago Fire originally filed a discovery claim with MLS and the Impact had to pay over $100,000 dollars to them to be able to sign Drogba.
When the King got to Montreal, he did so on a one and a half year contract worth a little over $3 million, and reportedly rebuked Inter Milan to play in MLS, according to FCInter1908. In the 2015 MLS season, Drogba led the Impact to the Eastern Conference semifinals, losing dramatically to Columbus Crew in extra time. In 2016, Montreal reached the Eastern Conference final, and despite leading Toronto FC by 3-0 at one point in the first leg, ended up getting eliminated by the eventual champions. Drogba’s final stats in MLS aren’t spectacular, but amassing 21 goals and 7 assists in 33 games is nothing to be shy of. His inclusion in this list is explained by his impact in North American soccer, further highlighted by his stint in Phoenix Rising.
After a few months without a club, Drogba signed for the USL Championship side- the equivalent of the second division of U.S. soccer- in Phoenix. The former Chelsea player was also part of the ownership group and led Rising to the USL Western Conference title in 2018 and eventually to the USL Championship game, which they lost to Louisville FC. That game on a cold November night in Kentucky was Drogba’s last-ever as a footballer, and the man who had won so much during his career unfortunately retired without a USL title. However, he remains connected to the club and has helped in Phoenix’s attempt to secure MLS status, which is yet to be confirmed in spite of the massive soccer fanbase in Arizona.
13. Frank Lampard
Date of Birth: 6.20.1978 (44)
Birthplace: Romford, England
Total Stats in MLS: GP 29, GS 24, Mins 2013, Goals 15, Assists 4
Before the author is burned at the stake for suggesting Frank Lampard in a list of top MLS players, remember that this list is composed of the best players from Europe to play in MLS, not the top performing players from Europe in MLS. Now, let’s go back to July 24, 2014. NYCFC announces Lampard as their brand new signing, joining David Villa as two of the pillars of MLS’ newest team. However, City Football Group, the owners of both NYCFC and Manchester City, quickly announce that Lampard would play for the English side for the first half of the 2014/15 season, which then turned into the entirety of the season after manager Manuel Pellegrini requested so. NYCFC announcing Lampard was seen as a “mistake” since he was allegedly signed by City Football Group, and NYCFC fans and owners were left hanging. Lampard played the entire 2014/15 season with Man City and then joined MLS, nursing an injury.
The Chelsea legend, who is the Blues’ top goalscorer in history and who won plenty of trophies at Stamford Bridge, didn’t make his MLS debut until August 2015, coming on as a substitute. That first season, Lampard played 10 games and scored only three times, and NYCFC didn’t even make the playoffs, finishing 8/10 in the Eastern Conference. Disappointment was not in short demand in New York, since it was unfathomable to see a team with Lampard, Villa, and now Andrea Pirlo, miss out on the playoffs by a wide margin. However, things improved in 2016. Even though Lampard started out injured, he did manage 13 goals and three assists in 19 games. NYCFC finished second in the Eastern Conference and reached the semifinals, where they were battered 7-0 on aggregate by Toronto FC. Lampard announced he would leave the club that November, and then retired in February 2017.
All in all, Lampard played 29 times for NYCFC and even though fans might not have the best memories from his time there, he did manage to score the club’s first hat-trick ever and did leave a mark… a negative one in most fans’ minds, but a mark nonetheless. His stats aren’t terrible but for a player of his stature that earned $6 million a year, and that is a Premier League legend, Lampard’s stay in MLS will mostly be remembered as disappointing.
12. Steven Gerrard
Date of Birth: 5.30.1980 (42)
Birthplace: Merseyside, England
Total Stats in MLS: GP 34, GS 31, Mins 2655, Goals 5, Assists 14
On January 7, 2015, the Los Angeles Galaxy announced the signing of Steven Gerrard. One of the Premier League’s brightest-ever players would join Major League Soccer following the conclusion of the 2014/2015 season in England’s top flight. That day was May 16, 2015, in a match between Stoke City and Liverpool at the Britannia Stadium. The Reds lost the game 6-1, but their only goal came through a pacey run and finish from Gerrard, who said goodbye to the league in which he played over 700 matches, scoring 185 times and assisting on 152 occasions. Less than two months later, Stevie G was already playing in MLS, making his debut on July 11 against Real Salt Lake in a U.S. Open Cup match.
This is what Gerrard said when he was announced as a new Galaxy player: “The Galaxy are the most successful club in Major League Soccer history and I am looking forward to competing for more championships in the years to come… I am committed to helping the LA Galaxy compete for trophies and to having an impact in Los Angeles and I will give my all for the club,” according to a club release. The Englishman’s commitment to the team was never in doubt, starting in 13 games even after arriving in the middle of the season, managing two goals and two assists. The Galaxy finished fifth in the Western Conference and fell in the first round of the playoffs against the Seattle Sounders.
In 2016, Gerrard played in 21 games, scoring three times and recording 11 assists. The team reached the Western Conference semifinals but fell against the Colorado Rapids on penalties. Unfortunately for the storied Liverpool legend, he retired in November of 2016 and never managed to win a league title in his career. However, his time in MLS will most likely be fondly remembered by Galaxy supporters, sharing a team with Giovani dos Santos, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong and Emmanuel Boateng, and always displaying sacrifice and grit on the pitch. The now-manager of Aston Villa played a total of 34 games for the Los Angeles club, and totalled five goals and 14 assists.
11. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Date of Birth: 10.3.1981 (40)
Birthplace: Malmö, Sweden
Total Stats in MLS: GP 56, GS 53, Mins 4753, Goals 52, Assists 17
Eredivisie league champion, multiple Serie A winner, LaLiga conqueror, Ligue 1 monarch and Premier League figure, Zlatan Ibrahimovic signed for the Los Angeles Galaxy on March 23, 2018. The numbers speak for themselves: 52 goals and 17 assists in only 56 matches over a two year period; an impressive haul for any player but even more so for a 37-year old striker that has suffered multiple serious injuries. The Lion announced his arrival in LA with a giant full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times that read: “Los Angeles, you’re welcome.” As arrogant as that might have looked, Ibra was not wrong. Even though he didn’t win the league, the Swede sensation managed 22 goals in his first season and a whopping 30 in his second one. Galaxy missed out on the playoffs by one point in 2018, but reached the Western Conference semifinals in 2019.
Ibrahimovic’s stint in Los Angeles and MLS happened primarily because of Jovan Kirovski, the Galaxy technical director. Kirovski is a former player that plied his trade in Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Crystal Palace and Birmingham City, among other clubs. Kirovski first wanted to sign Ibrahimovic when he played for Paris Saint Germain, back in 2016, according to the Galaxy website. The deal couldn’t happen because either the Los Angeles club already had three designated players or because of injuries, but after a tour to then-named StubHub Center and a fancy dinner in Beverly Hills, Kirovski managed to convince Zlatan and the impossible became possible.
Ibrahimovic announced himself to MLS with a spectacular double in the local derby against LAFC, and he never took his foot off the gas. In his first season, Zlatan came in on a $1.5 million yearly salary, but obtained Designated Player status in 2019. The difference is that Designated Players don’t count against the league-wide MLS salary cap. Ibrahimovic left the club in November 2019 in stylish fashion, publishing: “I came, I saw, I conquered. Thank you LA Galaxy for making me feel alive again. To the Galaxy fans – you wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues … now go back to watch baseball.”
10. Andrea Pirlo
Date of Birth: 5.19.1979 (43)
Birthplace: Fiero, Italy
Total Stats in MLS: GP 60, GS 58, Mins 4929, Goals 1, Assists 18
Andrea Pirlo could have continued to play in Europe for quite some more time than he did. His last-ever appearance for Juventus was on June 6, 2015, playing 90 minutes in the UEFA Champions League final between Juventus and Barcelona. Furthermore, the classy Italian won the Serie A and Coppa Italia double and still had one year to go on his contract with the Vecchia Signora. But then, exactly one month after the Champions League final, he signed for NYCFC and agreed to join the club in its maiden Major League Soccer season at 36 years of age. Pirlo’s stats in Europe are impressive, playing nearly 700 matches and winning the Serie a six times, the Champions League twice and the 2006 World Cup. Up next, a new chapter for the Maestro, who debuted on July 26 in front of a packed and ecstatic home crowd.
"It was great because I could tell that they wanted me to play…When I got on the pitch, it was absolutely amazing to hear all of the applause. It was very emotional to hear and I really did appreciate it,” he said after the 5-3 win over Orlando City. When Pirlo arrived at NYCFC, they were seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. That year, the team didn’t make the MLS playoffs, but they did manage to reach the Conference semifinals in 2016 and 2017. Pirlo said he chose the New York side because of his hunger to achieve important results in the league, and that he “never had a doubt in picking New York,” according to a team statement.
Unfortunately for one of Italy’s most technically gifted players in recent memory, he couldn’t step off the pitch for a final time by lifting a trophy, but his impact on the Italo-American community in New York and on the rest of American soccer won’t be soon forgotten. His last game for NYCFC was a 2-0 win over Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a score that wasn’t enough to overturn the team’s 4-1 loss in the first leg. In his goodbye letter in November, Pirlo thanked everyone for his support and kindness, including the coaching staff, supporters, teammates, and everyone who worked behind the scene.
“Not only my adventure in NY comes to an end, but my journey as a football player as well. That is why I would like to take the opportunity to thank my family and my children for the support and love they always give me. Every team that I had the honor to play for, every teammate I have been pleased to play alongside, all the people that made my career such incredible and last but not least, all the fans around the world that always showed me support. You will always be on my side and in my heart”, he wrote.
Date of Birth: 4.22.1982 (40)
Birthplace: Gama, Brazil
Position: Attacking midfielder
Total Stats in MLS: GP 75, GS 69, Mins 5959, Goals 24, Assists 22
By the time Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite first put on an Orlando CIty jersey, he was already a Serie A champion, a Champions League winner, a LaLiga conqueror, and had also lifted the FIFA World Cup and won a Ballon D’Or. The day was June 30, 2014 and the Brazilian superstar put an early end to his second stint with AC Milan and decided to join Orlando City, due to a clause allowing him to so if the Rossoneri didn’t qualify for European competitions. After a semester on loan at Sao Paulo while the 2015 Major League Soccer season started, Kaká opened his Lion career with a last-minute equalizer in March of 2015 against NYCFC, in what was the first-ever season of Orlando City history. In 2015, the club missed out on the playoffs by a mere five points, but the Brazilian superstar managed to make an impact with nine goals and seven assists in 28 games.
Next year, Orlando again missed out on playoff soccer, this time finishing only one point away from the knockout round, with Kaká scoring nine times and assisting on 10 occasions. In 2017, what would end up being Kaká’s last-ever season as a footballer, Orlando City nearly finished bottom of the Eastern Conference, and the world had to say goodbye to one of the classiest soccer players in recent history on October 22, 2017 in Philadelphia Union’s Subaru Park.
The game ended up in a 6-1 win for the Union, and the 2007 Ballon D’Or winner left on a low note in spite of having a spectacular career. The Gama native was one of the highest-paid soccer players in MLS history, earning a reporte $7.2 million a year, and is an example of a worthwhile investment, having played 75 games in three years and having raised the worldwide profile of Orlando City. “It was a very emotional game, so hard to play sometimes because when I was on the field a lot of things were in my mind, so it’s difficult to focus on the game… of course I wanted to finish with winning, but with this goodbye it’s very good for me because it’s not about the result, it’s not about the things that we could change here, so I owe a lot to this city, to this club, to this staff and my teammates”, he said after the game.
When Kaká confirmed he was leaving the club, he mentioned that he chose not to renew for another year and opened the possibility of returning to Orlando City under a different role. “The moment now is to say goodbye, but my heart is full of happiness and joy. Thanks Orlando,” read a statement from the legend himself. Originally, it was rumored that the Brazilian would play again in Sao Paulo but shortly after his last match in MLS, he confirmed his retirement. Now, he mentioned that he is deciding to follow in the footsteps of Zinedine Zidane, who took some time for himself after retiring before deciding whether or not to stay involved in the game.
8. Thierry Henry
Date of Birth: 8.17.1977 (44)
Birthplace: Les Ulis, France
Total Stats in MLS: GP 122, GS 118, Mins 10402, Goals 51, Assists 42
Thierry Henry is one of the players whose Major League Soccer career will almost unanimously be remembered as positive. The 1998 World Cup winner arrived in New York on July 13, 2010, and spent five seasons in MLS that signified five consecutive playoff appearances for the New York Red Bulls, finishing top of the Eastern Conference regular season standings twice, and reaching four Conference semifinals and one Conference final. Henry left Barcelona in the summer of 2010 after winning his second consecutive LaLiga title, adding to his impressive trophy cabinet with the Spanish club that also included the 2008/09 UEFA Champions League and a Copa del Rey. In his last season with the Culés, Henry played 32 games but only managed four goals and four assists, regularly being benched in favor of Pedro.
When the talented and speedy attacker arrived in MLS, Henry said it marked an exciting new chapter in his career and life. “It is an honor to play for the New York Red Bulls. I am fully aware of the team’s history and my sole goal during my time here is to help win the club its first championship. Knowing Red Bull’s significant commitment to soccer locally and internationally, I am confident that my teammates and I will succeed,” he stated, according to a team release. Unfortunately for Henry, the championship never came but his legacy in New York remains, something that Head of Red Bull Global Soccer Dietmar Beiersdorfer hoped would happen back in 2010, when he presented Henry as one of the team’s marquee signings. The former Barcelona, Monaco , Juventus and Arsenal player scored 51 goals and 42 assists in the 122 games he played for NYRB, and even though he couldn’t give his team a title, Henry left on a high with Concacaf Champions League qualification secured through the obtention of the 2013 MLS Supporters’ Shield.
Henry’s last season in MLS was his last-ever as a footballer, confirming his retirement soon after the end of the 2014 campaign, in which the New York Red Bulls finished fourth in the Eastern conference but went on to reach the Conference Final, where they lost 4-3 on aggregate to the New England Revolution. When Henry announced his career as a player was over in December 2014, he said he had an incredible journey and thanked all of his teammates at Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona and NYRB. "I have had some amazing memories (mostly good!) and a wonderful experience. I hope you have enjoyed watching as much as I have enjoyed taking part. See you on the other side”, he published on Facebook.
7. Josef Martínez
Date of Birth: 5.19.1993 (29)
Birthplace: Carabobo, Venezuela
Total Stats in MLS: GP 117, GS 106, Mins 9376, Goals 93, Assists 15
* Stats accurate as of 7/1/2022
It only took Josef Martínez one year to become an Atlanta United legend. The Venezuelan striker was initially signed on a loan deal from Italian club Torino in 2017, but made an instant impact, scoring 20 times in 20 appearances in what ended up being a limited season due to an injury. Despite being eliminated in the first round of the Major League Soccer playoffs, Atlanta United bought Martínez, who in 2018 scored 31 goals and established a new MLS record. If that weren’t enough, the Golden Boot holder scored an additional four during Atlanta United’s championship playoff run, including one in the final against Portland Timbers. Martínez was on such a high level that he was awarded MLS, MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup Most Valuable Player awards, and continued to be a regular staple for the Venezuelan national team.
His impressive goalscoring form continued in 2019, managing 27 goals in 29 games and earning him a 5-year contract that runs until 2024, but had to take a break in 2020 after just one match in which he tore his ACL. Martínez’s impact was more than noticeable, since Atlanta didn’t manage to qualify for the playoffs in the year he missed. But, 2021 was proof of just how strong Martínez has proven to be on and off the pitch. The Venezuelan striker came back from the serious injury to score 12 times in 24 games and make it back to the playoffs. When he was signed, Martínez said he was very happy to arrive at one of MLS’ newest clubs, and expressed his excitement at the prospect of prospering in a new league. “I was able to see the training ground and the stadium that the club is building, and I knew that coming to Atlanta was the best decision. Also, there is a great coaching staff and remarkable young players. I can’t wait to start to work with my new teammates,” Martínez said in a team statement.
Born in Carabobo, the pacey attacker arrived in MLS when he was only 24 but already with plenty of experience in demanding leagues such as the Swiss Super League and the Serie A. That experience proved to be key for one of the league’s most exciting players, who was hired in the prime of his career, according to Atlanta United president Darren Eales. “Between Serie A, Europa League and various international competitions with the Venezuelan National Team, Josef has already proven himself on some of the biggest stages in our sport and we’re confident in his ability to make a difference in MLS,” Eales said in 2017. He was right.
6. Sebastian Giovinco
Date of Birth: 1.26.1987 (35)
Birthplace: Turin, Italy
Total Stats in MLS: GP 114, GS 111, Mins 9635, Goals 68, Assists 52
Sebastian Giovinco’s name has to be in the running for one of the best signings in Major League Soccer history. The diminutive Italian was elected MLS Most Valuable Player in 2015, the same season in which he arrived in Toronto after finishing a six-year stint at Juventus. Initially, Seba was supposed to join Toronto FC after completion of the 2014/15 Serie A season but he cut his time in Italy short, making his debut on March 7, against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Upon signing, Giovinco stated, “I have heard so many great things about Toronto over the years and I know that it will be a city that I feel right at home.” And a home is just what he made by scoring 22 goals and recording 16 assists in a mere 33 games during that first season, leading the league in both tallies. However, Toronto fell in the first round of the playoffs. In 2016, after scoring 17 goals, Giovinco led Toronto FC to the MLS Cup Final, but lost on penalties against the Seattle Sounders.
Revenge was right around the corner, and the Canadian outfit managed to beat the Sounders in the 2018 final, winning the Canadian championship that same year and impressively reaching the 2018 Concacaf Champions League final. Unfortunately for the MLS outfit, Mexican giant Chivas de Guadalajara edged them on penalties, but Giovinco was still elected as an MLS All-Star and won the Champions League Golden Ball. Less than a year later, things seemed to fall apart as Giovinco left the club’s January training ground over a salary dispute, according to Sportsnet.ca. Bob Bradley had just become the new manager, replacing Greg Vanney, and he stated that the best option for both parties would be for Giovinco to return to Italy. The Italian ended up in Saudi Arabia instead, playing two year for Al-Hilal before joining Sampdoria on loan in January 2022. Even though Giovinco hasn’t played for Toronto again and is unlikely to do so at 35 years of age, he is the team’s all-time leading goalscorer with 68, and managed a whopping 52 assists all in 114 games.
Even though the love story between Giovinco and Toronto seems to have ended on a sour note, he will always be remembered for the impressive haul of goals, assists and trophies during his four-year stint: one MLS cup, two additional playoff appearances, one Supporters’ Shield, three Canadian championships, one Champions League final, and MLS MVP and Golden Boot awards, just to name a few. As of writing this article, Giovinco doesn’t have a team and is a free agent, so it’s not unconscionable to think we could see him in MLS once again.
5. Carlos Vela
Date of Birth: 3.1.1989 (33)
Birthplace: Cancun, Mexico
Total Stats in MLS: GP 102, GS 90, Mins 8044, Goals 63, Assists 41
* Stats accurate as of 7/1/2022
The day was August 10, 2017. At approximately 10:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, Los Angeles Football Club announced their first Designated Player in history, more than a year before their first-ever match in Major League Soccer. Carlos Vela, one of Real Sociedad’s best players and renowned Los Angeles fan, would join the team after the conclusion of 2017, with the Mexican attacker calling the signing a “very special” moment. When Vela left Europe to join MLS, he was one of the most important players for the Txuri-Urdin, playing 39 games and scoring 10 times in the 2016/17 season, and played an additional 17 times in the 2017/18 season before joining LAFC. During his time at Real Sociedad, he played 249 games, scoring 73 goals and logging 42 assists, winning the Player of the Year Award in the 2011/12 and 2013/14 season, during which he shared a locker room with Antoine Griezmann. But, we’re here to talk about MLS.
Vela had a triumphant debut with the Black and Gold in March of 2018, assisting Diego Rossi for a 1-0 win away at Seattle Sounders. That set the tone for what would be a successful debut season, scoring 14 goals and managing 13 assists, and helping LAFC reach the playoffs in their maiden campaign, even though they fell in the first round against veteran squad Real Salt Lake. 2019 proved to be even more impressive for Vela, scoring a record-setting 34 goals in a single MLS season and registering 15 assists in only 31 games. Led by the talented Mexican attacker, LAFC topped the Western conference with 72 points, also leading the entire league. Even though they breezed past the LA Galaxy in the playoffs, their dream run ended in the Conference Finals with a 3-1 defeat to the Seattle Sounders, who knocked them out again in 2020, the same year LAFC reached the Concacaf Champions League final.
2021 didn’t produce a playoff run, but Vela will always be regarded as a Black and Gold icon, something he recognized when recently signing a one-year contract extension. It was recently rumored that Chivas de Guadalajara made an attempt to resign their academy product, but Vela stated that he would not be leaving Los Angeles due to how happy he and his family are. “Los Angeles is a special place for me and my family. This is our home, and I am excited to continue my career here at LAFC…My goal is to win the MLS Cup with LAFC, and I will work hard to achieve our goal, and I expect to continue to achieve great things for the Club, my family, our fans and the City of Los Angeles.” Now, with the recent transfers of Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale to the club, it seems LAFC is intent on making sure Vela wins a trophy as soon as possible.
4. Bradley Wright-Phillips
Date of Birth: 3.12.1985 (37)
Birthplace: London, England
Total Stats in MLS: GP 234, GS 184, Mins 16461, Goals 117, Assists 34
Bradley Wright-Phillips is one of the few players on this list signed from European clubs that didn’t have international pedigree when arriving to Major League Soccer. The English forward started his career at the now-mighty Manchester City, but then played in Southampton, Plymouth Argyle, Charlton Athletic and Brentford. That’s why when he signed for the New York Red Bulls in July of 2013, there weren’t major expectations around the league that Wright-Phillips would have the impact he ended up having: 195 regular season games, 108 goals (top goalscorer in NYRB history), 28 assists, three MLS Supporters’ Shields and three NYRB Most Valuable Player awards. And, according to the team website, Wright-Phillips became the first player in MLS history to score 20 or more goals in three different seasons.
Four years after his arrival, and following the 2016 MLS season in which he was the top goalscorer in the league with 24, Wright-Phillips was granted a new contract and was named an NYRB Designated Player. By then, the English already had records to his name, such as the MLS single-season scoring record with 27 back in 2014, and stated he remained on the team to try and win the MLS Cup. Unfortunately for the dangerous striker, that never happened, going as far as the Conference Finals twice but never lifting the trophy. After New York, Wright-Phillips spent time at LAFC, where he scored eight league goals, and at Columbus Crew, where he only did so once. On March 11, 2022, the story of the Lewisham native on the soccer pitch came to an end.
NYRB announced they signed Wright-Phillips to a one-day contract so he could retire as a Red Bull. “It wouldn’t have felt right retiring somewhere else, especially in America, it wouldn’t have felt right,” said Wright-Phillips in a team statement. “I am honored to get the opportunity to retire here, it means a lot to me.” He is now helping mentor young players, will be a club ambassador and will have a new role as Special Assistant to the Sporting Director.
3. Robbie Keane
Date of Birth: 7.8.1980 (41)
Birthplace: Dublin, Ireland
Total Stats in MLS: GP 125, GS 119, Mins 10808, Goals 83, Assists 45
When Robbie Keane signed for the Los Angeles Galaxy in August of 2011, he was just finishing up a loan move to West Ham United after playing 14 years in the most competitives leagues in European soccer, including stints at Wolves, Inter Milan, Leeds United, and more importantly, at Tottenham Hotspur. During his two seasons at Spurs, the Irish striker played over 300 games for the Lillywhites and scored on 122 occasions. That is why the Galaxy were rubbing their hands together when they signed him, since not only were they getting a great goalscorer and player, but they were already a big team, leading the Major League Soccer standings at the time. In comes Robbie Keane. Along with David Beckham, he propelled the Galaxy to three MLS titles in three years: 2011, 2012 and 2014, being named Most Valuable Player in the latter one.
In 2015, his contract was extended in spite of being 34 years of age due to his impressive goalscoring form, since at the time he had 55 goals in 91 games for the MLS giant, and had just been named MLS MVP. However, Keane would only be for the team until the end of the 2016 season, when the Galaxy bounced out of the playoffs in a Western Conference semifinal against the Colorado Rapids. Even though he finished his playing days in 2018 at now-extinct Indian soccer club ATK, Keane will always be remembered for his heroics in the City of Angels, where he ended with a tally of 83 goals and 45 assists in 125 games.
2. Clint Dempsey
Date of Birth: 3.9.1983 (39)
Birthplace: Nacogdoches, Texas
Position: Attacking midfielder/Forward
Total Stats in MLS: GP 186, GS 170, Mins 15340, Goals 72, Assists 42
Clint Dempsey is a U.S. soccer legend: there’s no two ways about it. In his 15 year career, he managed to climb to the tippy top of the United States Men’s National Team goalscoring and appearance charts, and managed to play consistently in the Premier League with Fulham, and also in one season with Tottenham Hotspur. Dempsey first played in Major League Soccer in 2004, when the New England Revolution selected him with the eight overall pick of the 20024 MLS SuperDraft. In his rookie season, he quickly established himself as one of the most exciting talents in the league, playing 24 games and starting in 23 of them. Dempsey’s first season as a professional soccer player will probably be remembered in a bittersweet manner because even though he was a key part of the Revs team that reached the MLS Cup Final, even scoring in a Conference Final, he wasn’t able to take home the trophy. Two more seasons in MLS were enough for Fulham to come knocking at the end of the 2006 season.
Dempsey spent five years with the Cottagers, playing 232 games, scoring 60 times and assisting 21 times. Some of the highlights of his Fulham career include the impressive run to the 2009/10 UEFA Europa League Final, in which Dempsey scored a spectacular goal against Juventus in the Round of 16. The Nacogdoches, Texas native even played approximately 65 minutes in the final against Diego Forlán’s Atlético de Madrid, a match the London-based club lost 2-1 in extra time. Two more seasons with Fulham and Dempsey was off to Tottenham for a year, where he played 43 games and scored 12 goals. In spite of his solid numbers, he departed for Seattle and returned to MLS. In the six years he played for the Sounders, Dempsey won the 2014 U.S. Open Cup, the 2016 MLS Cup, and finished runner-up of the 2017 MLS Cup. His career in Seattle ended with 47 goals in 115 matches, as he suddenly retired in 2018.
Dempsey stated on a podcast that his unexpected announcement to call quits on the game he loved so much wasn’t due to the irregular heartbeat that caused him to miss Seattle’s 2016 championship run, since he did end up returning for 2017, but due to burnout. “I felt like I couldn’t go at 100 percent. I don’t know if it was mentally or if it was just what my body was telling me… We didn’t qualify for the World Cup, so there wasn’t as much to play for”, he added sentimentally.
1. David Beckham
Date of Birth: 5.2.1975 (47)
Birthplace: London, England
Total Stats in MLS: GP 98, GS 91, Mins 8066, Goals 18, Assists 38
We’ve already gone over some part of David Beckham’s impressive legacy, including how when he signed for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, Major League Soccer was never the same. We reviewed how more people started noticing the league, and the large appeal Beckham continues to have in MLS, now as Inter Miami’s owner. What else is there to say about one of MLS’ most influential figures?
Beckham played 98 games for the Galaxy over six years, starting in 91 of them and logging an impressive 8,066 minutes. Even though the midfielder “only” scored 18 goals, most of them were spectacular and his 38 assists helped the Galaxy to two MLS Cups and three Western Conference Championships. Furthermore, he signaled the beginning of the constant migration of stars to MLS, and no longer those about to retire, but those that can still provide entertainment and joy for the millions of fans in the U.S. and abroad.