There was a time when the MLS was regarded with derision by European football fans. While that might be true still in some quarters, there is no doubt that the quality gap has closed significantly. It used to be a retirement home for ageing superstars who were long past their best, but now soccer players in their prime are playing there.
In its current form, the MLS has been around since 1993. We’ve seen teams come in and out of existence during that time in both the Western and Eastern Conferences. We’ve also seen some brilliant players throughout that time as well. So today, let’s check out the very best in the history of the league.
We’re talking about players who have left behind real legacies at their clubs, not just superstars who went there for a payday, after making their names elsewhere. So there’s no room for the likes of Ballon D’or winner Kaka, Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo, or Ivorian superstar Didier Drogba. The likes of USMNT stars Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are unfortunate to miss out. Check out the 30 best players in MLS history below.
30. Carlos Vela
The Mexico international is on course to change MLS scoring records for good. He’s scored 36 goals in just 50 games for Los Angeles FC and doesn’t look like stopping. The 30-year-old has a supreme pedigree, having played for the likes of Arsenal and Real Sociedad in a lengthy career.
He spent 8 seasons in the blue and white of Sociedad before moving to LAFC for their inaugural season in 2018. He became an instant star for the Western Conference side and nobody looks able to stop the Mexico international from scoring. He’s found his true home.
Players dream of the success that Steve Ralston achieved in the MLS. He made his name with the Tampa Bay Mutiny before crossing over to the New England Revolution. A goal-scoring midfielder, Ralston was the first MLS player to win the Rookie of the Year award. And what an influence he had on both sides that he played for.
When he retired, Ralston held the records for most assists in MLS history (135), appearances (378), starts (372) and minutes played (33, 143). He also held the US record for most professional appearances (412). Since retiring he’s entered the world of coaching and is currently an assistant manager with the San Jose Earthquakes.
Boca Juniors legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto is one of the best players to ever play in the MLS. He made his name in his native Argentina, where he won 17 official titles. But he wasn’t finished. In 2007, the forward moved to the United States with the Columbus Crew and he’d go on to win three league and cup titles and the MLS MVP award.
Schelotto was a versatile forward who could play as a striker, or slightly deeper between the lines. He’d score 38 goals in 118 appearances for the Crew, making him one of the best foreign buys to ever wear the shirt. He also became the Crew’s first-ever designated player in 2008. It’s no wonder he was a fan-favourite.
Possibly the smoothest and most technically proficient midfielder in the history of the MLS, Diego Valeri is the epitome of an Argentine attacking midfielder. A Portland Timbers icon, he arrived in the United States from Lanus in 2013 and hasn’t looked back since. Over 200 appearances later and he’s proven to be one of the MLS’s greatest ever players.
The 2017 MLS MVP Award winner has lit up the league with his electrifying performances. He’s led the Timbers to victory in both the 2015 Western Conference and the 2015 MLS Cup final, the greatest year in their history so far. Valeri scored the opener in the cup final in just 27 seconds, a record in the competition. Truly a phenomenal player.
One of the most recognisable US soccer players in the world, Clint Dempsey made his name in the Premier League playing successfully for the likes of Fulham and Tottenham Hotspurs before moving back to the MLS. He then became one of the faces of the Seattle Sounders, helping them achieve sublime success.
He’s won one MLS Cup with the Sounders as well as a US Open Cup. Dempsey is also considered by many to be the greatest international footballer in US history too. He’s tied with Landon Donavon for the most goals scored for the US men’s national team. He announced his retirement from football in August 2018.
The son of LAFC manager Bob Bradley, Michael is a football star in his own right. He’s a force of nature in the middle of the pitch for Toronto FC, having gained so much experience playing in Europe for big sides like Bayer Leverkusen in Germany and AS Roma in Italy’s Serie A.
Indeed, he was starring for the Italian side before opting to move to the MLS in the prime of his career. Roma fans nicknamed him ‘The General’ and he’s brought that form to the US. He won the MLS Cup with Toronto in 2018 and helped them to the CONCACAF Champion’s League final in 2018.
Regarded as the greatest Guatemalan footballer of all time, Carlos Ruiz played for five MLS clubs: LA Galaxy, FC Dallas, Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union and DC United. He has the record for most post-season goals in MLS history with 16 in 17 games. Overall he scored 88 goals in 182 MLS appearances, making him the 11th highest goal scorer in league history.
In 2002 he won the MLS MVP award. Ruiz won a single MLS Cup with LA Galaxy but would attain legendary status throughout his nomadic career. He was also a two-time golden boot winner, most notably scoring 24 in 2002. He also earned 132 caps and scored 68 goals for his country in a prolific career.
The third highest goal-scorer in MLS history, with 134 goals, Jeff Cunningham has had a truly phenomenal career. The Jamaican-born, US international played for five different teams in the MLS but spent most of his time with the Columbus Crew. He won a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and an MLS Supporter’s shield during his time in Ohio.
He also had success with other teams, including a Western Conference Championship win in 2010 with FC Dallas. He was prolific in front of goal and a firm-favourite at almost every team he played for. At the time of writing, Cunningham was on trial at Hai Phong in the Vietnamese league.
He might never have established himself as a US international, only winning five caps for his country, but Kevin Hartman is arguably the greatest goalkeeper to ever play in the MLS. He’s saved more shots than any other keeper and was the 1999 goalkeeper of the year. Hartman has also spent more time on the pitch than any other player with a record 37260 minutes across 17 seasons.
The club he spent the longest time at was LA Galaxy, but he’d also establish himself with the Kansas City Wizards and FC Dallas. He was the first goalkeeper to record 100 shutouts in MLS history. Hartman’s list of accolades are crazy. He’s one of the league’s most successful players with MLS Cup wins, four Western Conference wins, and two Lamar Hunt Cup wins.
Bolivia’s Jaime Moreno lit up the league with his incredible performances for DC United. He was the first Bolivian to play in the Premier League with Middlesbrough and then went on to glory with the Black and Red. Moreno helped lead them to the MLS Cup in 1996, with an immediate impact.
But it was 1997 when he had arguably his best season. He was the MLS’s top scorer with 16 goals and was named to the division’s best eleven. He’d do the same in 1998, winning another MLS cup and scoring another 16 goals, but missing out on the MVP award to his fellow Bolivian Marcos Etcheverry.
The first native Hawaiian to play in the MLS, Brian Ching had a nomadic career in the league, playing for LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and the San Jose Earthquakes, until finally finding his true home in Houston with the Dynamos. Ching was also the first Hawaiian to play for the US Men’s National Team, featuring for his nation 45 times.
Ching had a glittering career with the Dynamos, winning the MLS Cup twice. He also won two Western Conferences and two Eastern Conferences. He’s one of the most successful players in the history of the MLS and one of the most respected, having been involved in many social causes. A true star.
Exciting forward Taylor Twellman is one of the most visible faces from the MLS now that he’s a pundit and commentator for ESPN. But he’s also one of the most prolific forwards in MLS history, especially when he was playing for the New England Revolution. After playing for 1860 Munich II in Germany, he moved back home and boy, did he have an impact?
Twellman was the fastest player in MLS history to score 100 goals and also the youngest, achieving the feat at the age of 29. He won the 2007 MLS Golden Boot and MVP awards showing just how important he was to the Revolution. His two biggest honours with the club were the North American Super Liga and Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup.
A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Eddie Pope is a legendary defender for the US. He spent most of his career in the nation’s capital at DC United, but would also play for the MetroStars and Real Salt Lake. In 2005 he was named to the MLS All-Time Best XI, and no wonder, because his career in the league was incredible.
Pope had some incredible highlight moments, scoring a golden goal against LA Galaxy in the 1996 MLS Cup. He also scored the winning goal in the 1997 Copa Interamericana final. He would also play 82 times for his country in a long and distinguished career in soccer. Pope retired from the professional game in 2007.
Legendary England forward Wayne Rooney had a remarkable career in the Premier League with Manchester United and Everton. Now he’s lighting up the MLS with some absolutely outstanding displays for the team in black-and-red. He’s scored from beyond the halfway line. There was an outrageous last-ditch tackle and pass for a game-winning goal against Orlando.
Rooney has an average of over a goal every two games for DC United. He’s scored 23 goals in 42 games in the MLS and forced his way in the MLS Best XI in 2018, before becoming an All-Star in 2019. England’s all-time top goalscorer has become incredibly popular in the capital.
A pioneer for the MLS, Cobi Jones was one of a number of American players who returned from overseas to help promote the new domestic league. He played for Coventry City in the UK and Brazil’s Vasco de Gama, before moving to LA Galaxy where he would play for an incredible eleven years. Now that’s some real loyalty for you.
He won two MLS Cups and a CONCACAF Champion’s Cup with the Galaxy as well as several other major honours. When Jones retired, his number 13 shirt was retired by the Galaxy, the first time ever in the MLS. However, it would later be assigned to Jermaine Jones who would also wear it with distinction.
The US has produced some remarkable goalkeepers. Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard have all represented their country with pride, Tony Meola was as good as any of them. He was an MLS original with the Metrostars, keeping six shutouts in his first season. But it would be with the Kansas City Wizards where he would make his name as the MLS’s greatest goalkeeper.
2000 was his greatest year. He was named the league’s MVP, MLS Cup MVP and the Goalkeeper of the year after an astonishing season where he kept a record 16 shutouts. On the international stage, he helped the US to two CONCACAF Gold Cups.
One of the most recognisable footballers in the history of the game, Carlos Valderrama’s glorious mane of hair made him stand out on the pitch as much as his silky skills and playmaking abilities. He spent a significant amount of his career in the MLS, playing for the likes of the Miami Fusion, Tampa Bay Mutiny and Colorado Rapids.
His influence on the league can’t be exaggerated. Valderrama holds the record for the most assists in a single season, achieving 26 in the 1999/2000 season. In 1996, he won the MLS MVP award. You’d expect no less from a man of his pedigree and quality. He also had a massive influence in helping to popularise the league in its early days.
The Serbian-American is the only two-time winner of the MLS MVP Award (now known as the Landon Donavon Award). That should tell you exactly how good and important Preki was to the MLS during his time as a player there. An American Soccer Hall-of-Famer, Preki was an MSL original.
He played for the Kansas City Wizards for four years, before moving to Miami Fusion. He went back to Kansas after the Fusion dissolved and played up until the age of 42. Preki became a naturalized US citizen and would even represent his adopted country on the international stage, winning 28 caps.
One of the USMNT’s 2014 World Cup Stars, Chris Wondolowski’s time in the MLS may be coming to an end, but there’s no doubting that he’ll leave the league as a legend. He’s spent ten years with the San Jose Earthquakes and is one of the most prolific goalscorers in the history of American soccer.
He’s the only player to score ten or more goals in 9 consecutive seasons and the only player to score more than 150 league goals. In a young league like the MLS, these numbers may one day be broken, but Wondolowski has them right now. The highest scorer in the competition’s history, Wondolowski is an icon.
Arguably the greatest Bolivian player of all-time, Marco Etcheverry is a DC United icon. The forward starred for the side for 8 seasons, making 190 appearances and scoring 34 goals. While he wasn’t exactly prolific, he was still beloved for his consistency and dedication to the team.
He helped DC United win eight trophies during his time with the club and was included in the MLS Best XI for four consecutive seasons. Arguably the highlight of his career was winning a CONCACAF Champion’s League with DC. He was awarded an Order of Merit by the Bolivian government for his contribution to the sport.
The man, the myth, the legend. There is only one Zlatan and he did not come to the MLS to be compared to Carlos Vela. Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the third most decorated footballer in the world having won 31 trophies in his career. He’s on the books of LA Galaxy as a designated player and is definitely their main man right now.
He’s been an MLS all-star two years in a row and has scored 44 goals for LA Galaxy so far, winning the Golden Boot in his first season. His outrageous form has continued this season, with 16 goals in 18 appearances. That’s sensational, even by his lofty standards. Nobody should be that good.
Nobody expected the impact that David Villa would make at New York City FC. The franchise had splurged on glamour players like Andrea Pirlo in the past, but World Cup winner David Villa was definitely the man they were looking for. One of the greatest forwards of his generation, the former Barcelona man scored 82 goals for the club.
Now plying his trade in Japan, Villa is currently New York City’s all-time top goalscorer and appearance maker. While he narrowly missed out on a Golden Boot win, he remains one of the best players to ever appear in the MLS. He might have been getting older, but class is permanent… in Villa’s case anyway.
Canada’s all-time highest goalscorer, Dwayne De Rosario has had a long and distinguished career in the MLS. He’s won four MLS Cups, as well as the 2011 MLS Most Valuable Player award. De Rosario has had two spells at Toronto FC, as well as appearing for league stalwarts like DC United and the San Jose Earthquakes.
He won a CONCACAF Gold Cup with his country and won the 2011 MLS Gold Cup. De Rosario is also an all-round good guy. De Rosario is the only player to ever win the MLS best goal of the year, for two years in a row. What a sublime talent he is.
The younger brother of former Chelsea and Manchester City Winger Shaun, Bradley Wright-Phillips was leading an average career in the UK until he decided to be brave and make the move to the MLS with the New York Red Bulls. The rest is history as he’s turned out to be one of the league’s biggest international success stories.
You could argue that he’s been a bigger success than his one-time strike partner Thierry Henry. The two-time MLS Golden Boot winner has scored 108 goals for the Red Bulls so far in his career. He’s been an MLS All-Star twice so far in his career and was ranked in the CONCACAF 2018 best eleven. What a brilliant decision it was for him.
One of the greatest EPL players of all time with Arsenal, Thierry Henry showed that he still had hunger when he was lighting up the MLS as a designated player for New York Red Bulls. The Frenchman never won a major trophy with the Red Bulls but he still had an excellent individual career with the New York side, scoring 51 goals for them.
Henry also brought an edge of class to the league. While his best days in Europe were behind him, he had the motivation to give it his all for the Red Bulls, unlike many European players who end up underperforming when they move across the Atlantic Ocean.
David Beckham single-handedly changed US soccer as we know. The former England captain became a global icon during his time at Manchester United and Real Madrid, before bringing his talents to the MLS with Los Angeles Galaxy. It was a signing that without any hyperbole, shocked the world.
It generated unprecedented media attention for the league, with Beckham making the covers of the likes of Sports Illustrated and global Galaxy shirt sales going through the roof. He’d score 18 goals in 98 games for the Galaxy, but his impact on the MLS and the global recognition it brought was priceless.
The signing of David Beckham might have changed the game off the pitch for the MLS, but on the pitch Robbie Keane was the one who helped ignite a dynasty for LA Galaxy. One of the most natural goalscorers to ever play in the US, Keane was a proven Premier League talent. Inter Milan, Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspurs are the biggest names on the Republic of Ireland’s top goalscorer’s glittering CV.
Keane would score 83 goals in 125 games for the Galaxy, winning three MLS Cups along the way. He spent five seasons on the west coast and would eventually assume the role of club captain after Landon Donavan retired from football. If Beckham deserves a statue then Keane definitely does.
Sebastian Giovinco was a very surprising signing for Toronto FC. He moved to Canada in 2015, becoming the league’s highest-paid player in the process. But boy, was he worth it. The Italy international only spent three seasons in the MLS, but he arrived in his prime and made a sublime impact.
He’d leave with 68 goals scored in all competitions. Giovinco’s flair, skill, and speed marked him out as a special talent. There was a reason he was playing for Serie A giants Juventus before his move to the Reds. Now plying his trade in the Middle East, Giovinco was that rare star who arrived in their prime.
National Soccer Hall-of-Famer Jeff Agoos is one of the MLS’s most influential figures. He was a massive star for DC United, winning three MLS Cups with them. He’d win a further two with the San Jose Earthquakes and can be regarded as one of the best defenders ever to play in the States.
Agoos made an incredible 134 appearances for the US national team. After retiring from competitive football, the tough-tackling defender became a sporting director at New York Red Bulls. Now he is currently working as the Vice-President for Competition in the MLS. A key figure in US soccer.
One of the greatest USMNT players of all time, Landon Donavon is an LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer icon. He started off his career in Germany, before moving to San Jose Earthquakes. But it was with the Galaxy where he would truly make his name as one of the greatest talents in all of US soccer.
A four-time winner of the US Soccer Athlete of the Year award and the only seven-time winner of the Honda Player of the Year award, Donavon was a force of nature in the MLS. He scored 112 goals for the Galaxy. The USMNT’s joint-top goalscorer of all time, Donavon also has the most assists in MLS history with 136. Oh and a record 6 MLS cups…