Best Football Players Who Played in the MLS

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 13.10.2023.

‘Just another day now’ - the American soccer fans have been convincing themselves of the inevitable rise of the sport that has seemingly yet to approximate its traditional pastimes. While the reality might be that while the fans in the USA aren’t sold on sport still, its greatest figures are sold on it. Judging by the best football players who played in the MLS, it’s one of the favoured destinations outside of the top European leagues.

Best Players Who Went to the MLS

Most notably, Pele was football’s pioneer in coming to America, while never playing in Europe his whole career. Yet the Brazilian arrived in the '70s when the MLS wasn't even founded. That happened in 1993.

So in the 30 years of the Major League Soccer, who are the best players who graced the fields of the MLS? (In no particular order)

Leo Messi (Inter Miami)

Leo Messi (Inter Miami)

In his first 13 games with Inter Miami, Lionel Messi has delivered on the massive hype, scoring 11 goals and making five assists. With his arrival, MLS fans have been truly spoiled as the greatest of all time came at the moment everyone was going to Saudi Arabia. Aged 36, Messi is set to leave an eternal mark on the league, although his personality isn't of the star variety in the States.

Lorenzo Insigne (Toronto FC)

Lorenzo Insigne (Toronto FC)

Certainly the player with the best transfer story of getting to the MLS. Admittedly, the Toronto staff went online and typed in "Italians whose contracts are running out" and voila, Lorenzo Insigne appeared. The former European champion was coming off his biggest triumph and signed while still in his prime in 2022, so his return of 11 goals and six assists in 32 games is only going to soar as the deal runs until 2026.

Carlos Valderrama (Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion, Colorado Rapids)

The man who has the most games played in the MLS of the ones we included on this list, and also the only one who actually changed more than two clubs within the league! The memorable Columbian Carlos Valderrama played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion, and the Colorado Rapids. Of which, only the latter is still the part of the league. Overall, Valderrama scored 16 goals in his 175, while excelling as a creator from his attacking midfielder position, setting up 69 goals.

David Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy)

David Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy)

Truly the man who made the MLS and then made it his own. The celebrity footballer was intended for the Hollywoodized sports nation and that's where he landed, going from Galacticos to Los Angeles Galaxy. Becks played in 124 games for the LA squad, scoring 20 times and making 42 assists, winning two MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shield trophies. As one of the faces of the MLS, he remained on the continent in a massive way, leading his own club now - Inter Miami.

Hristo Stoichkov (Chicago Fire, D.C. United)

One of the few players from the previous generations who ended up in America. Hristo Stoichkov played in 255 games for Barcelona, scoring 117 times. So certainly, he is one of the best players to ever grace the MLS grass too. Playing for Chicago Fire for 65 games, scoring 22 times and making 15 assists, then bouncing to Washington and playing in 23 games for D.C. United, with nine goal involvements to his name.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Los Angeles Galaxy)

If David Beckham was the first match to light up America's interest for the MLS, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the second. Also landing in the city of celebs, yet Ibra enticed the Americans with his verbal bravado as much as he did with his acrobatic and flairy goals. Considering just how big of a media impact Zlatan had, it's surprising that he ended up playing just 58 games for Galaxy. However, that was enough for him to score 53 goals and make 15 assists.

Kaka (Orlando City)

Kaka (Orlando City)

When you're officially one of the best players who ever did it, having won the Golden Ball in 2007, Kaka is certainly a lock for finding himself within the best football players who played in the MLS. Playing for Orlando City SC, the legendary attacking midfielder scored 25 goals and made 19 assists in 78 matches. He is just one of few World Champions who has graced soccer crowds with his presence.

Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy)

Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy)

An industrious striker if ever there was one, Robbie Keane changed 11 clubs in his career, being loyal with some and jumping boats quickly with others. The Irish CF enjoyed his time with Galaxy it seems as he played the second most games with them, with 165 games to his name alongside 104 goals and 41 assists! Keane won three MLS Cups with the Los Angeles squad, one Supporters' Shield, and was named the league's MVP in the 2013/2014 season.

Wayne Rooney (D.C. United)

Washington is one of the more enticing destinations on the MLS menu as the diplomats' city has more of an international culture than others. Wayne Rooney seemingly opened up his personality a bit away from the English press as well, so his foreign exploits benefited him twice fold. His on-field exploits resulted in 25 goals and 14 assists in 52 games. In total, it also earned him the callback to be D.C. United's manager after his playing career.

Bastian Schweinsteiger (Chicago Fire)

While it might seem that the recruitment figures of MLS clubs tend to go for the flashier players more often, legends with sound fundamentals also end up over the pond. Also, let's not forget that Bastian Schweinsteiger had a thunderous long shot. The German demonstrated this eight times in his 92 games, following his goal tally with 11 assists. He is another former World Champion who played in the USA.

Gonzalo Higuain (Inter Miami CF)

Gonzalo Higuain (Inter Miami CF)

As credited by the case of Insigne, the GMs of MLS clubs tend to cater to the demographics following the club. So the Latino stronghold of Florida - represented in part by Inter Miami - got to sign the Argentinian super scorer Gonzalo Higuain. In his USA exploits, Gonzalo scored 29 goals and made 11 assists in 70 games.

Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC)

With two Champions League trophies, one World Cup, and six Scudetto titles, Andrea Pirlo is not only one of the best football players who played in the MLS, he is also one of the most credentialed by stats. A footballer who encapsulates important parts of football's essence, Pirlo has been compared to fine wine in Europe regularly. His contribution to NYCFC was spread out over 62 games, where he had nine assists and one goal.

Frank Lampard (New York City FC)

One could make a strong argument that Pirlo and Frank Lampard are their countries' best representatives among midfielders. And both of them played for New York City. With two very different styles. Lampard showcased that he is one of the best goalscoring midfielders of all time in the States as well, bagging 15 goals in 31 matches, with four assists to go with them.

David Villa (New York City FC)

New York has the world's highest reputation as a city which makes it easier for big names to be attracted to it. Rather than Seattle for instance. David Villa seemingly really enjoyed The Big Apple as he played in 126 games, producing an extraordinary goal return of 80 finishes, with 21 assists to go with it. The World Cup and European champion added the MLS MVP trophy to his individual trophy case.

Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)

Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)

Arsenal's greatest player is one of the best football players who played in the MLS and stayed in it for a fairly good time. Henry did take advantage of the league's schedule and organized loans back to Europe, yet he managed to get to 135 appearances for the Red Bull club. With a return of 52 goals and 42 assists, Henry wasn't phoning it in and was later rewarded additionally with a coaching position.

Giorgio Chiellini (Los Angeles FC)

Joining the "other" LA club, Giorgio Chiellini remained for just one season, yet the Italian defence maestro maximized his time with a Supporters' Shield and the MLS Cup trophy! The European champion with Italy and nine-time Italian champion needed just 39 games to organize a side capable of winning silverware, contributing with a goal and assist too.

Steven Gerrard (Los Angeles Galaxy)

The Liverpool legend played just one season outside of Anfield and it was fittingly profeciant not to tarnish his name. Stevie G scored five goals in the 39 games he played for MLS's most popular team, and he contributed with 15 assists. With a CL trophy and the individual accolade of being the best player in Europe in 2005, Gerrard is certainly one of the biggest transfers of the MLS.

Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)

Certainly not on the level of other players on this list, yet Sebastian Giovinco stands out as a player who went to the MLS in his prime, while he had offers from Premier League clubs. He also excelled in the league playing for the Canadian side, scoring 83 goals and making 51 assists in 142 matches!

Didier Drogba (CF Montreal)

Another example of how the player's origins matter a lot in the eventual MLS team he joins. The French-speaking Dididier Drogba signed for CF Montreal, a club in the Quebec province of Canada. The powerful centre-forward scored 23 goals in 41 games, with seven assists to his name as well.

Ashley Cole (Los Angeles Galaxy)

Perhaps a bit forgotten, but Ashley Cole certainly belongs on the list of best football players who played in the MLS. The CL, Europa League, and Premier League winner landed with Galaxy and played in 94 matches, overlapping a bit with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The left-back scored three and made possible 11 goals during his stint.

Chicharito (Los Angeles Galaxy)

While not the biggest name amongst these legends listed, Chicharito had to be included as of his impact on the league as a whole was massive. Arguably the biggest star Mexico had in this century, Chicharito played 83 games for Los Angeles Galaxy, scoring 39 times and making seven assists, with the contract ongoing.

Carlos Vela (Los Angeles FC)

Another player who wasn't a legend in Europe, yet certainly left his mark in Spain and England. However, Carlos Vela's career flourished in America where he scored 93 goals and recorded 53 assists in the 182 games he played for Los Angeles FC, for whom he is still playing. Winning the MLS Cup once and the Supporters' Shield once, alongside the 2018/2019 MVP trophy.

On resumes alone, Gareth Bale also deserves to be mentioned as one of the best footballers who played in the MLS, yet he performed in only 14 games for Los Angeles FC.


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