By William Hill
Last Updated: 7th January 2020
Major League Soccer officially began in 1996, but in the early years, it was far from popular. In its first five years, the MLS lost $250 million, and more than $350 million between its founding and 2004. But after the USA reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, football, or soccer as they call it, enjoyed a sudden surge in popularity in the States. This was helped further in 2007 when the league introduced the Designated Player Rule, an idea to help bring international stars into the league.
Since then, the popularity of the MLS has been growing exponentially, and there have been a number of elite players to have plied their trade in the division. Betting on MLS has also grown in recent years. It has become a place for superstars to end their careers on a high, and some players have enjoyed great success. Here we take a look at some of the biggest stars to have graced the American elite league.
David Beckham will long be credited with being one of the key figures that put the MLS on the map. After the Designated Player Rule came in, the former England captain was the first major superstar to enter the division. In 2007, La Galaxy signed him from Real Madrid on a five-year contract worth $32.5 million in total.
The addition of the Ballon d’Or runner-up, winner of six Premier League titles and one Champions League trophy was a major coup for the MLS. It not only helped to attract more viewers to the game, but it also led other superstars to realise that this was a viable career move after they had passed their peak.
Overall, Beckham’s tenure in the MLS never really lived up to the hype. In 98 appearances for Galaxy he scored 18 goals and failed to win the favour of the fans after extended loan spells to AC Milan in 2009 and 2010.
One superstar whose move to the MLS was hugely successful is David Villa. The Spanish sharpshooter joined New York City in 2014, and since then has scored 66 goals in 100 appearances for the Pigeons. Villa was another huge coup for the league, as the former Barcelona forward was a crucial member of the awesome Spanish side that won Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland and then the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. During Spain’s march towards the pinnacle of trophies, Villa scored five goals and claimed the Silver Shoe.
After that immense international success, Villa signed for Barcelona for €40 million in 2010. In three seasons at the Camp Nou, the former Valencia man made 77 league appearances and scored 33 goals. When Villa joined Atletico Madrid in 2013 and only scored 13 goals from 36 appearances, it seemed that the prolific striker was past his prime. Joining the MLS a year later helped him to continue to write his legacy, though, and he has been named in the MLS Best XI twice, in 2016 and 2017.
One of the most decorated players in football history to play in the MLS was Thierry Henry, who joined New York Red Bulls in 2010. Prior to his appointment at the MLS club, the Frenchman had won two Premier League titles, two La Liga trophies, the Champions League with Barcelona in 2009, and the World Cup with France in 1998. The all-time record goalscorer for France and Arsenal made a name for himself in north London, where he scored 174 league goals in 254 showings for the club.
Henry is arguably one of the most successful MLS imports. In his five seasons with the Metros, Henry won the Eastern Conference twice, as well as the 2013 MLS Supporters’ Shield. During his tenure he bagged 51 goals and registered 42 assists, putting him firmly in the club’s record books.
Kaka is one of three Ballon d’Or winners to have played in the MLS, with the other two being Lothar Matthaus and Hristo Stoichkov. The 2007 winner joined Orlando City in 2014 and made 75 appearances over three seasons. He scored 24 goals in the process. The Brazilian made a name for himself at AC Milan and is widely considered to be one of the greatest attacking midfielders of all time. When he joined the Lions after his second stint at Milan, he became the highest-paid MLS player ever on $6.6 million-a-year.
Kaka retired after his stint in the MLS, and it can be considered a fairly successful end to his career. He was named in the MLS All Star team for three seasons running in 2015, 2016, and 2017, and was the MVP in 2015.
The most recent major name to grace the MLS is the living legend and self-proclaimed god of football Zlatan Ibrahimović. The enormous Swede felt that the time was right to show the States what he was made of, and signed for LA Galaxy in March of 2018. The massive personality made a monstrous impression on his debut as well, coming off the bench and scoring two goals, one of which was a wonder strike from 45 yards out. He said, “I heard the crowd shouting, ‘We want Zlatan, we want Zlatan,’ so I gave them Zlatan.”
Zlatan’s MLS journey is just getting underway, but there’s little doubt that he’ll set the league alight as he has done in every other country he’s played in. His most prolific tenure was at Paris Saint-Germain, where he scored 113 goals in 122 appearances. Prior to that, he had successful periods at AC Milan, Barcelona, Inter Milan, and Juventus. It will be interesting to see what kind of an impact he can have at Galaxy.
Other legendary footballers like Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard have also spent some time in the MLS. These stars, however, didn’t make quite the same impact as the players mentioned above. As the league continues to thrive and grow, there will surely be more talent from Europe’s elite divisions crossing the Atlantic to set the MLS on fire.