In comparison to the rest of the world, Major League Soccer is still basically a toddler at this point. The highest league of soccer in the United States and Canada only played their first season a little over two decades ago, in 1996. It started with just ten teams, although it now boasts 22, with plans to continue growing in the very near future. It only expanded into the Great White North of Canada in 2007, when Toronto FC joined the league (teams in Montreal and Vancouver would quickly follow). Compared to the 100+ years of history that the game has in Europe, MLS is still a baby.
However, the league has been graced with some excellent players in those 20+ years. This list will countdown the 15 best players in MLS history, according to a variety of criteria. We’ve considered things like goals scored, titles won, career longevity, cultural and marketing impact, and pure technical skill. We’ll also readily admit that we are putting more weight on recent players, who experienced “MLS 2.0” as the league transitioned into standard rules (no more breakaway shootouts to eliminate ties!) and made an attempt to shed their label as a “retirement league” — to varying degrees of success. Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, for example, have been tremendous for Toronto FC, both brought into the the league in their mid-20s. On the other hand, the signings of Frank Lampard (NYCFC) and Steven Gerrard (L.A. Galaxy) in their mid-to-late 30s were pretty much useless.
Here is our carefully considered and totally accurate list of the 15 greatest players in MLS history.
15. Cobi Jones
Cobi Jones may have started his pro soccer career in Europe with Everton, but he only truly became a star when he came back home to play in MLS for the Los Angeles Galaxy. From 1996 to 2007, Jones appeared in 306 games for the Galaxy and scored an impressive 70 goals. While that number is certainly impressive, especially for a midfielder, it Jones’ other accomplishments that really put him on this list. He won each of the U.S. Open Cup, the Supporter’s Shield, and the MLS Cup twice apiece. He also helped the Galaxy to a CONCACAF Champions Cup, the precursor to the region’s current Champions League competition that no MLS team has ever won.
Aside from his exploits with the Galaxy, Jones became one of the first big American soccer stars for the U.S. National team. He was the face of the team that competed in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. His fame definitely helped propel the sport of soccer and the upstart league to new heights.
14. Brian McBride
Brian McBride would be further up this list if he had spent more of his career in MLS. However, he spent 2000-2008 playing in England, with Preston North End, Everton, and finally Fulham (where he became a fan favorite for both his goalscoring and incredible work rate). Before his exploits in England, though, McBride spent multiple seasons with the Columbus Crew, scoring 62 goals in 161 appearances. When he returned to MLS in 2008, he signed with the Chicago Fire and notched another 18 goals in 59 appearances.
Like Cobi Jones, McBride was also a key member of the U.S. National team during his prime years and helped forge new ground for the sport of soccer in a country that had traditionally shunned it. He also won the U.S. Open Cup in 2002 with the Crew, and was named Chicago Fire Team MVP in 2009.
13. Michael Bradley
The General doesn’t make this list because of his prolific goalscoring or the few pieces of silverware in his trophy case. Michael Bradley makes this list because he is the engine that makes Toronto FC run, and has been one of the most vital reasons that the first Canadian MLS team finally managed to stop being a league joke after their first eight miserable seasons.
Bradley actually got his MLS start with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the Red Bulls) in 2004 as a teenager. His ability to control the tempo of the game as a true box-to-box midfielder was evident from the start, and he was quickly snatched up by Europe, spending time in the Netherlands, Germany, England, and finally fulfilling his potential in Serie A as a vital member of AS Roma.
Since returning to MLS in 2014, Bradley has captained Toronto FC to a remarkable turnaround. They have won two Canadian Championships and lost a heartbreaking shootout in the MLS Cup final in 2016. In 2017, Bradley has again been the driving force behind Toronto FC’s incredible results, which currently have them on pace to be the best team in MLS history, as they look to win the championship that alluded them the year before.
12. Kevin Hartman
Kevin Hartman played his entire professional career in MLS, racking up an amazing 416 combined appearances between stints with the Galaxy, Kansas City Wizards (now called Sporting Kansas City), and FC Dallas. He holds a ton of longevity records that qualify him for this list, like most career victories by a goalkeeper (179), most MLS minutes played (37,260), and the only MLS player to play at least 400 games. But he’s not among the best in league history just for ability to stay on the field.
Hartman boasted an impressive career goals against average of 1.21, good for eighth in league history. He was the first MLS keeper to put up back-to-back 20 win seasons and still holds the record for most career saves (1,453). Oh, and his trophy case in quite full. Here are the highlights: two U.S. Open Cup wins, two MLS Cup championships, three-time Supporter’s Shield winner, and MLS goalkeeper of the year in 1999.
11. David Beckham
Becks might take some heat from the soccer ignorant crowd who believe he only came to MLS for the large payday and to schmooze it up in Hollywood with his Spice Girl wife. The fact is, though, that without David Beckham, the entire North American soccer landscape would probably look extremely different. His arrival marked the beginning of the “Designated Player” rule, which allows MLS teams to spend far above the traditional salary cap. Without Beckham, the league probably wouldn’t have stars like David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Kaka, or Giovani dos Santos playing today.
Beckham, the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star, didn’t just come to MLS for a retirement bonus. He spent five seasons with the L.A. Galaxy, showing off a pretty strong work rate for someone who critics said was just here to sell jerseys to gullible fans. He only scored 18 goals for the Galaxy, but that was never the strong part of his game anyway. He was still able to pick teams apart with 40-yard crossfield passes, helping the Galaxy secure the Supporter’s Shield in 2010 and 2011, and back-to-back MLS cups in 2011 and 2012. His contributions to MLS, both on and off the field, are undeniable to anyone who was watching at the time.
10. Marco Etcheverry
Here’s an old name that newer MLS fans might not recognize. Marco Etcheverry was part of the D.C. United that played in the inaugural MLS season, way back in 1996. The Bolivian national is still considered to be one of the best midfielders to ever play in the league, scoring 34 goals and adding 101 assists (!) in 190 appearances for United. More importantly, though, he was a key part of those early United teams that won eight different eight different pieces of silverware in the span of three seasons.
Etcheverry won MLS Goal of the Year in 1997 and 1999, and was named league MVP in 1998. Additionally, he was named to the MLS Best XI four straight years (1996-99). While it’s hard to compare the career of someone who played in MLS two decades ago to the current crop of players, it’s hard to deny Etcheverry’s considerable resume.
9. Jeff Cunningham
No list of MLS greats would be complete without the inclusion of the man who still sits second on the all-time goals list, the Jamaican-born Jeff Cunningham. He scored 134 goals in his MLS career, which spanned from 1998 to 2011. During that time, he played for Columbus, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC, FC Dallas, and a second sting with the Crew. While he doesn’t have a ton of team honors to his name (just a U.S. Open Cup in 2002 and a Supporter’s Shield in 2004), Cunningham was a consistent goalscorer everywhere he went.
He won the MLS Golden Boot in 2006 and 2009, and was named to the league’s Best XI on three separate occasions. Although he could never quite replicate his form for the United States National Team (one goal in 14 appearances), Cunningham is still one of the greatest scorers that MLS fans have ever seen.
8. Chris Wondolowski
We are getting to the tricky part of the list where we start to include players who are still active in the league, and first up is Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes. He joined the league in 2005, and then moved with the team to Houston in 2006. By 2009, San Jose had their team back and Wondo was traded back to his old stomping grounds and continued to light up the score sheet. To date, the California native has scored 131 goals in 245 MLS appearances, good for roughly one goal in every other match. That’s good for fourth on the all-time list. At 34-years-old, he probably has a few years left to try and reach the record of 145.
Along the way, Wondolowski has added numerous trophies to his mantle. Back-to-back MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007 for starters, along with the Supporter’s Shield in 2012. He’s fond of winning individual awards too, collecting two Golden Boot awards (2010 and 2012), three MLS Best XI nods (2010, 2011, 2012), and the MLS MVP in 2012. And he’s not quite done yet.
7. Jaime Moreno
If this list had been written a few years ago, Jaime Moreno would likely be a few spots higher. Even with the influx of MLS 2.0 stars, Moreno remains the third-highest scorer in league history with 133 career tallies, one behind Cunningham, doing almost all of damage while playing for D.C. United (he spent a very brief period with the MetroStars in 2003, scoring twice). Moreno is probably the one player in MLS history who fits the description of “club legend” more than anyone else.
Moreno wasn’t the only good thing about those D.C. United teams. Collectively, they won four MLS Cup championships, four Supporter’s Shields, two U.S. Open Cups, and the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup (joining the Galaxy as the only MLS side to ever win a CONCACAF competition against clubs teams from Mexico). He retired in 2010 and remains with D.C. United as a member of their Youth Academy coaching staff, further cementing his status as an all-time great in MLS.
6. Thierry Henry
It’s hard to argue that MLS has ever seen a more technically skilled player join their league than when Frenchman Thierry Henry signed with the New York Red Bulls in 2010. The former Arsenal and Barcelona star is probably the dictionary definition of “pure class,” winning almost every major European competition he ever played in, including the French Ligue 1, the English Premier League, the F.A. Cup, La Liga, and Champions League.
Henry gets docked points in this list for not coming to MLS until he was 32-years-old, meaning that the prime of his career was left in Europe (and fittingly so). However, his outrageous skill managed to still shine through on plenty of occasions in MLS, despite age slowly creeping up on him. He scored 51 goals in 122 appearances for the Red Bulls, winning a Supporter’s Shield in 2013 (although he was unable to bring an MLS Cup championship to New York). While he may not the same amount of goals or trophies as other players on this list, anyone who watched Henry play during his stay in MLS must admit that his stardom still shone brightly on U.S. soil.
5. Dwayne De Rosario
The man known affectionately as “DeRo” to many started his soccer career with the semi-pro side Toronto Lynx before eventually catching the attention of the San Jose Earthquakes, who signed the young Canadian in 2001. So began a 15-year MLS career that turned Dwayne De Rosario into an MLS legend. During stints with San Jose, Houston, Toronto, New York Red Bulls, and D.C. United, he scored 104 goals in 343 appearances — good for seventh on the all-time list.
He won four MLS Cups championships during his career, and was named the 2011 MLS MVP (even more remarkable since he played on three different teams that season). And although he couldn’t overcome the incredible incompetence of the early Toronto FC management, for a long time he was the one thing that TFC fans could cheer for, especially playing in home city. He was also the star of the Canadian National Team for much of his career, winning a miraculous Gold Cup for the country in 2000. When it comes to Canadian soccer icons, DeRo is the man — quite literally, since female soccer star Christine Sinclair is probably even more popular North of the border.
4. Robbie Keane
David Beckham may have been the biggest name on those dominant L.A. Galaxy teams, but striker Robbie Keane was far more important on the field. He was another big name brought over from England, having played for Leeds, Liverpool, and Tottenham (among others). He came to MLS when he was still just 31-years-old, young enough to make a serious impact. And what an impact it was.
Keane was a scoring machine in MLS, notching 83 goals in 125 appearances for the Galaxy. At the time, he was widely considered to be one of the very best (if not the best) designated player signing that MLS had ever seen. Like Beckham and Henry before him, be refused to succumb to the stereotype of “nearly-retired-Euro-star-goes-for-a-jog-and-collects-millions.” His deadliness in front of goal helped the Galaxy to three MLS Cup titles and a Supporter’s Shield. Individually, Keane made the MLS Best XI in four straight seasons, was the league MVP in 2014, and named the Galaxy MVP every single season from 2012-2015.
3. David Villa
Now we get to the really debatable parts of the list. Spanish legend David Villa has only been in MLS for three seasons so far, but his tremendous skill and a boatload of on-field production already make him one of the very best to ever suit up in MLS. Despite not arriving in New York City FC until his early 30s, Villa still looks very much the same player who starred for Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and the World Cup winning Spanish national side.
To date, Villa has scored an amazing 60 goals in 87 appearances, adding in another 20 assists. His leadership immediately helped the expansion NYCFC team jump straight into playoff and championship contention. Although Villa hasn’t won any team silverware yet in MLS, we’re still comfortable calling him one of the best to ever play. After all, the league doesn’t just have 10 teams anymore. It’s getting harder to win titles. But Villa’s brilliance, which earned him the MLS MVP award in 2016, is still more than enough to grant him a high spot on this list.
2. Sebastian Giovinco
“The Atomic Ant” found himself on the outside looking in as a young member of Juventus, despite a successful loan spell with Parma that saw him score 22 goals in 66 appearances. Unable to crack the starting eleven in Turin, Sebastian Giovinco made a shocking leap over to MLS in 2015 to join big spenders Toronto FC, signing one of the richest contracts in league history. If you ask any Toronto fan, they’ll tell that he’s been worth every single penny.
His 52 goals in 82 appearances (so far — it’s probably out of date by the time you read this) fall slightly behind David Villa’s numbers. But he makes up for it by also being an elite playmaker, providing 37 assists so far in his TFC career. In his very first season in MLS, he won the Golden Boot, was named to the MLS Best XI, and won the league MVP award. He also helped Toronto clinch their very first playoff berth with a magical goal against the New York Red Bulls. The following season, TFC made it all the way to the MLS Cup final (although they would lose in penalties to Seattle).
In 2017, which is only three-quarters finished as I write this, Seba is still up to his old tricks. He broke the record for most free kick goals in MLS history and TFC are currently on-pace to win the Supporter’s Shield and potentially get another crack at the MLS Cup. If Giovinco sticks around the league long enough, he could end up as the No. 1 entry on this list. But he’ll have to take down a legend in the process.
1. Landon Donovan
Who else could it be? After all, the league quickly named their MVP trophy after Landon Donovan when he retired in 2014 (and then again in 2016, but who’s counting?). Donovan started his MLS career with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001 after impressing at German side Bayer Leverkusen, although he would become an MLS legend as a member of the L.A. Galaxy from 2005 until he retired from soccer. His 145 career goals are still good for the most all-time, with only Chris Wondolowski currently in striking distance and still active. If that doesn’t impress you, his 136 assists are also the most in MLS all-time, with no active player even close to catching him.
You want titles? Lando has a ton of them. Six MLS Cup championships (most all-time), two Supporter’s Shields, and a U.S. Open Cup in 2005. He also won MLS MVP in 2009, the Golden Boot in 2008, MLS Cup MVP in 2003 and 2011, and was named to the MLS Best XI seven different times. He was also a superstar for the United States National team, and literally the face of soccer in America for over a decade.
Current players like Giovinco and Villa may be more skilled than Donovan ever was, but they have a mountain to climb in terms of achievements if they ever want to dethrone the best player in MLS history.