For many years, Major League Soccer (MLS) was the butt of many a footballing joke – a retirement home for the ageing footballer who was once a star in Europe’s leagues, searching for their last fat paycheck in a place where the pressure was off and the football less intense.
However, in recent seasons, that’s changed. Sure, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival points to the above, but one could also point to the influx of young South American players in the league, as well as players making the switch to Europe from MLS (Miguel Almiron and Alphonso Davies are two notable names), that the quality of play and players in North America’s top league is growing.
So, it would behove us to look back through the annals of MLS history, from modern to, well, less modern (MLS was founded in 1995) and sift through 50 of the greatest players in the league’s short history.
*Note: This list ranks 50 of the MLS’ greatest players, not great players to have played in the MLS. So Andrea Pirlo won’t be making the cut.
50. Kei Kamara
Kicking off the list is Sierra Leone international Kamara, who is one of only 11 players to have scored 100 goals in MLS history, doing so in 300 appearances.
He’s currently on 120 strikes – good for fifth all-time in the league.
49. Wayne Rooney
Yes, Rooney has precisely zero silverware to his name during his time in MLS (unless you count a best XI nomination in 2018 – we don’t), but he still deserves a place on this list.
Why? Eyeballs. With a former Champions League and Premier League winner turning out for D.C. United on a weekly basis, fans will flock to see the former Everton and Manchester United striker perform on pitches throughout the country.
48. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Of course he’s making this list – you can’t deny the Zlatan.
Sure, he might have only joined MLS in 2018, and has won precisely nothing, but just like Rooney, his mere presence – as well as his excellent kung fu goals – is fantastic for the league’s exposure. For that reason, he has to make the top 50.
47. Ignacio Piatti
The Montreal Impact’s best player, Piatti is a three-time MLS All-Star, and has two MLS best XI nominations to his name.
Though he hasn’t won anything with the Impact, it’s not for lack of trying – the Argentinan has been their top scorer for the last three consecutive seasons.
46. Guillermo Barros Schelotto
Having experienced a ton of success in the Argentine Primera Division (winning 17 official titles), Schelotto joined Columbus Crew in 2007, winning three more trophies as well as one league MVP award in 2008.
45. Luciano Emilio
The Brazilian was a star for D.C. United, winning the Supporters Shield, Golden Boot and Newcomer of the Year in 2007. He followed that up with a U.S. Open Cup win in 2008.
44. Alex Pineda Chacón
How’s this for a one-season wonder: In one campaign with Miami Fusion in 2001, Chacón registered 19 goals and nine assists for the team and led the league in goals, receiving the league MVP, Golden Boot, and a best XI nomination.
The Honduran was unable to reproduce this form the following season, and by 2003 was out of the league.
43. Jason Kreis
Kreis is a legend over at FC Dallas where, as part of the Dallas Burn (who would later become FC Dallas), he scored 91 goals in 247 appearances.
He won the MVP in 1999, and won the MLS Cup as manager of Real Salt Lake.
42. Andre Blake
The Jamaican international is one of the best goalkeepers in MLS at present, winning the Goalkeeper of the Year and being named to the league’s best XI in 2016.
41. Stefan Frei
The Swiss-born goalkeeper has enjoyed a 10-year career in MLS, winning the U.S. Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield (both in 2014) and MLS Cup (2016).
40. Jozy Altidore
After being hounded out of Sunderland, Altidore has found a home with Toronto FC, winning the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield in 2017.
He’s also a two-time league All-Star.
39. Mike Magee
Magee is a two-time winner of the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield, as well as a former league MVP (2013).
38. Brian McBride
Fans of the Premier League will likely remember McBridge for his stint with Fulham, where he was the Player of the Year in 2005 and 2006.
With Columbus Crew, he won the Open Cup in 2002, and was elected to the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 2014.
37. Raul Diaz Arce
Won two MLS Cups, one Supporters’ Shield and one U.S Open Cup, all with DC United in just two years.
36. Miguel Almiron
Almiron made waves in his two seasons with Atlanta United, winning the Newcomer of the Year award and being named to two All-Star teams in both seasons.
He also helped United win the MLS Cup in 2018, before signing for Newcastle for £21m, a club record and the highest fee for an MLS player.
35. Mauricio Cienfuegos
After a fine playing career in Central America and Mexico, Cienfuegos made the switch to MLS.
As part of the LA Galaxy, the Salvadoran won an MLS Cup in 2002, Supporters’ Shields in 1998 and 2002, a CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2000 and a U.S. Open Cup in 2001.
34. Robin Fraser
A 10-year veteran of the MLS, Fraser won two Supporters’ Shields and the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, and was named as the Defender of the Year twice, in 1999 and 2004.
33. Steve Ralston
A footballing ironman, Ralston played in 378 regular season games, accruing 33,143 minutes.
He’s second all-time in assists, and was the first player to win the Rookie of the Year award.
32. Michael Bradley
Despite never quite hitting the heights expected of him in Europe with Roma and Borussia Monchengladbach, Bradley has been loving life with Toronto FC, winning the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and making three All-Star teams.
31. Diego Valeri
Led the Portland Timbers to the MLS Cup in 2015, won the league’s MVP award in 2017, has made three best XI teams and is a four-time All-Star.
30. Omar Gonzalez
The U.S. international is a three-time MLS Cup winner, two-time Supporters’ Shield winner, won the Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year in 2009 and 2011 respectively and was named in four MLS best XI teams.
29. Josef Martinez
Atlanta United’s lethal striker shattered the MLS single-season scoring record last campaign, bagging 31 strikes as United won the MLS Cup.
He also holds the MLS record for career hat-tricks (6), and in 2018 became the most decorated single-season player in MLS History by winning League MVP, All-Star Game MVP, Golden Boot, and MLS Cup Final Game MVP.
28. Brad Davis
A 15-year veteran of the MLS, Davis, despite leaving the league in 2016, is still third all-time for total assists.
He also won one Supporters’ Shield, two MLS Cups, was a six-time All-Star and was named to the league’s best XI in 2011.
27. C.J. Brown
Brown is a Chicago Fire legend, having made 286 appearances for the club.
He also helped the Fire to an MLS Cup in 1998, four U.S. Open Cups in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2006, and a Supporters Shield in 2003.
26. Donovan Ricketts
One of the best keepers in MLS history, the Jamaican won the Goalkeeper of the Year award twice, two Supporters’ Shields, and one MLS Cup.
25. Piotr Nowak
Joining the Chicago Fire in 1998, the Polish midfielder won the 1998 MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cups in four years with the club. Not a bad return.
24. Brian Ching
Ching played for four clubs during his career in MLS, winning three MLS Cups and a Supporters’ Shield.
He also made the best XI team on one occasion, was a six-time All-Star, and won the Golden Boot in 2004.
23. Bradley Wright-Phillips
Overshadowed by his brother Shawn and father Ian, Bradley Wright-Phillips has found great success with the New York Red Bulls.
He’s won the golden boot twice, and helped the club to the Supporters’ Shield on three occasions. He’s also eighth on the all-time top scorer charts.
22. Ben Olsen
Olsen is one of the few men to have won silverware in the MLS as a player and as a manager.
With DC United, Olsen racked up three Supporters’ Shields, two MLS Cups, and a U.S. Open Cup as the manager of the club. He also won the Rookie of the Year award in 1998, was named to the best XI team in 2007, and was the Coach of the Year in 2014.
21. Sebastian Giovinco
The Atomic Ant scored some sublime goals during his three-year stint at Toronto FC.
The 5’4 playmaker won the MVP and Golden Boot in his first season in MLS, and was the first player in league history to record 20+ goals and 10+ assists in a single season.
20. Thierry Henry
Henry is the most talented and the most decorated footballer to have played in the MLS (sorry Zlatan).
For that reason alone, he’s worthy of inclusion to this list, but the Frenchman also won the 2013 Supporters’ Shield and scored 51 goals with 42 assists in five seasons with New York Red Bulls.
19. Taylor Twellman
Twellman’s career in the MLS was cut short due to concussion problems, but the striker still bagged an impressive 101 goals during an eight-year career with New England Revolution, putting him 10th all-time in the scoring charts.
Predrag Radosavljevic – understandably known as ‘Preki’ – is still the only player in MLS history to earn the MVP award twice.
An MLS Cup winner with Kansas City, Preki scored 79 goals and made 112 assists over the course of 242 league appearances. He’s currently an assistant coach with the Seattle Sounders.
17. Marcelo Balboa
There’s been a lot of great hairstyles to grace MLS pitches over the years, and Balboa’s flowing locks and goatee are right up there with best of them.
Despite only playing in the league for seven years, Balboa’s technical ability and knack for popping up with important goals meant that he was named to the MLS all-time greatest XI.
16. Carlos Ruiz
El Pescadito played for 14 years in the MLS, taking to the field with five different clubs in his career in North America.
In his debut MLS season, the Guatemalan scored 24 goals to win the Golden Boot and led the L.A. Galaxy to the 2002 MLS Cup. He also won the MVP for that season.
15. Kevin Hartman
When it comes to longevity in the MLS, no one can top Kevin Hartman.
Nicknamed ‘the Cat, Hartman played for 17 seasons, earning the records for most minutes on the pitch, most saves in MLS history, and was named as the goalkeeper of the year in 1999. He also has two U.S Open Cups, two MLS Cups, and two Supporters’ Shields on his CV.
14. Carlos Valderrama
El Pibe was the original pioneer for South American talent in MLS.
Valderrama won the inaugural MVP award of the league in 1996, as well as leading the Tampa Bay Mutiny to the Supporters’ Shield in the same year. He’s a member of the league’s all-time XI squad, and sits fourth in the all-time assists charts with 114.
13. David Villa
The Spaniard was already a household name before he joined New York City FC, but when he came to MLS at 33, many questioned whether the striker could replicate the form that made him so lethal in Europe.
Well, Villa bagged 77 strikes in just 117 appearances, won the MVP in 2016 and was named to the best XI twice in his short stint in the MLS, which lasted just four seasons. Quite the impact.
12. Cobi Jones
Jones is one of the most decorated players in MLS history.
Scoring 70 goals in 306 games for the LA Galaxy (an impressive feat for a midfielder), Jones won two MLS Cups, two Supporters’ Shields, and two U.S Open Cups. He also helped the Galaxy win the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2000 – the last American side to do so.
11. Jeff Cunningham
Cunningham was quite the journeyman in MLS, playing for five different teams.
He scored 134 goals in a 13-year career, which puts him third in the all-time goalscoring charts. Though he only won two team honours (an Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield), the American won the golden boot on two occasions and was named to the league’s best XI three times.
10. Tony Meola
The greatest goalkeeper in MLS history deserves to be in the top 10 in this list, and rightly so.
Meola is the only goalkeeper to win the league’s MVP award, and also had a video game named after him: Tony Meola’s Sidekicks Soccer. Legend.
9. Eddie Pope
Considered to be the greatest defender in U.S. men’s national team history, Pope was named to the league’s all-time greatest XI in recognition of his defensive excellence.
Pope won the defender of the year award in 2007, and in 2011 was named to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. He was also named to the league’s best XI on four occasions.
8. Marco Etcheverry
Another man with a fantastic nickname, ‘El Diablo’ is one of the old greats of MLS, having played in the inaugural MLS season in 1996.
During his career, Etcheverry stuffed his trophy cabinet, winning three MLS Cups, two Supporters’ Shields, four best XI nominations, one MVP award, and was named to the MLS’ all-time best XI in 2005.
7. Dwayne De Rosario
The Canadian international enjoyed a 15-year career in MLS, scoring 104 goals in 343 matches (currently ninth all-time).
He won four MLS Cups championships during his career, and was named the 2011 MVP – an impressive feat, considering he played for three different teams that season.
6. Jeff Agoos
He may be number six on this list, but Jeff Agoos is number one on the all-time best MLS nicknames, uniquely referred to as ‘The Goose’.
On the pitch, the U.S. international was a defensive rock, winning five MLS Cups, two Supporters’ Shields, and one U.S. Open Cup. He was named to league’s best XI on three separate occasions.
5. Jaime Moreno
When you become the first player in league history to accumulate 100 goals and assists, you automatically install yourself as one of the greatest players in said league’s history.
Such is the case for DC United legend Jaime Moreno, the Bolivian winning four MLS Cups and being named to the league’s Best XI five times. Moreno finished his MLS career with 133 goals and 102 assists in 340 games.
4. David Beckham
One could argue that Becks should be higher on this list. One could also argue that he should be lower.
On the one hand, Beckham, with his global superstar status, drew the world’s attention to the MLS, and created the Designated Player rule – initially dubbed the Beckham rule – which allows each MLS franchise to sign up to three players that would be considered outside the team’s salary cap.
He won two MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shields with the Galaxy, which is less than many of the other players on the list, but his impact on the MLS is greater than these statistics, and merits his inclusion in the top 5 (he does have a statue, after all). Beckham is also in the process of bringing the new Inter Miami franchise to the MLS for the 2020 season.
3. Chris Wondolowski
Wondolowski is the top scorer in MLS history, with 152 goals to his name. And, currently playing as a forward for the San Jose Earthquakes at 36, there’s every chance he adds to his impressive tally.
‘Wondo’ has also won two MLS Cups, two MLS Golden Boots, has earned three Best XI nods, and was the league MVP in 2012.
2. Robbie Keane
Robbie Keane is one of MLS’ most successful international players. The Ireland international joined the Galaxy in 2011 after successful spells with Liverpool and Tottenham (and Leeds before that), winning three MLS Cups, and proving that he was still a lethal finisher with 83 goals in 125 games.
1. Landon Donovan
The ‘face’ of MLS, and undoubtedly the league’s greatest ever player. One of the few men to start their professional career overseas before joining MLS, Donovan moved from Bayer Leverkusen to the San Jose Earthquakes on loan in 2001, and immediately hit the ground running.
He scored 42 goals and added 35 assists in four years at the club, leading the Earthquakes to two MLS Cup championships in the process. He would briefly return to Leverkusen before joining the LA Galaxy, where he would cement his place in MLS folklore. Donovan won four MLS titles, two Supporters’ Shields, and one Open Cup trophy in Los Angeles.
He won the Golden Boot award in 2008, and was selected to the MLS Best XI seven times. He’s also second in the all-time scoring charts with 145, first in assists (136), and the league’s most valuable player award is named after him. After all that, it should be easy to see why he comes in at number 1.