Ever since Zlatan Ibrahimovic proclaimed himself the “best-ever player in MLS” on Sunday, debates have raged from sea to shining sea over whether or not he was right.
I’m not here trying to settle that argument. Instead, I’ve accepted the near impossible challenge to create a shortlist of the top 10 candidates for the title of best player to ever grace Major League Soccer.
Much of the difficulty in producing such an honor roll of nominees is setting a standard for judgment. Should it be about pure talent (which is how I think Zlatan meant it)? Pedigree plus performance in MLS? Do we put more stock in consistency over long league careers or briefer, but brighter flashes of light?
Honestly, there’s no way to establish a set criteria that reaches across all the eras (and salary cap levels) of MLS, so all these things, and more, were considered in an admittedly nebulous formula that went case by case. The one constant yardstick was players had to do their MLS business at a historic level to even be considered, which explains how worldly talents like Kaká, Lothar Matthäus, Hristo Stoichkov (the only three Ballon D’Or winners to play in MLS) and Bastian Schweinsteiger couldn’t even sniff the top 20.
Setting a litmus test for inclusion wasn’t even the hardest part, though. After tabbing a half dozen locks, splitting hairs to choose who would grab the last four slots was a fist-clenching chore. Don’t believe me? Give it a try and share your own top 10 in the comments section.
Without further adieu, I offer my top 10 MLS players in alphabetical order, followed by several highly esteemed near misses.
The former San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy star wasn’t just the face of American soccer for the better part of two decades. He wasn’t just a record-setting playmaker and scorer rolled into to one. He wasn’t just the most decorated player in league history. He wasn’t just an ace under pressure and an honest interview under a constant spotlight glare. No, Donovan was all of that through 14-plus MLS seasons.
The Atomic Ant was an instant sensation, capturing the MVP/Golden Boot double upon arrival from Juventus. Giovinco would go on to make the Best XI in three of his four seasons, help bring Toronto FC a historic treble and give free-kick nightmares to dozens of MLS goalkeepers. Only the three stars vying for this year’s scoring crown can top his goals plus assists per 90 minutes average.
Very few players in MLS history can even approach the graceful class demonstrated by the man they call “Titi” in his four-and-a-half season on our shores. Henry didn’t arrive to join the New York Red Bulls until he was nearly 33, but still had enough long-legged excellence in his locker to earn three Best XI selections and help the club win its first Supporters’ Shield.
The Lion talks the biggest game ever seen in MLS, and then he goes out there to back it up time and again. After starring for seven of the biggest clubs on the planet, Zlatan joined the Galaxy at age 36. The years have taken nothing away from the big man’s brashness, fight or jaw-dropping skills. He proved that to fans around the globe on his stunning debut and remains the most intimidating opponent to this day.
The list of players to arrive in MLS with equal or greater impact is very short. The list of players to average more goals plus assists per 90 minutes of league play is even shorter. Keane didn’t just score and set up teammates, he led. During his five seasons in Los Angeles, the Galaxy raised three MLS Cups and a Supporters’ Shield.
Surely, you didn’t think we’d get through this list without one of the top goalkeepers in American soccer history. It was a close call, but I had to go with Keller. Following a long, excellent career in Europe and with the US national team, he joined the Seattle Sounders mere months away from his 40th birthday. He remained a top shot-stopper until retiring three years, three U.S. Open Cup triumphs and a farewell season Goalkeeper of the Year award later.
Obviously miscast as a wide attacker during his time in Europe, the Atlanta United striker has proven you don’t need to be tall to be a target master. His guile gets him open, his fierceness gets him to the ball first and his lethality puts it in the net, over and over and over again. Martinez doesn’t just break records, he shatters them. And he’s the definition of a “celebrate like you’ve been there before” star.
The Colombian icon was simultaneously smooth as silk and tough as nails. He was also the first MLS MVP and arguably the biggest attention draw in the league’s early days — and not only because of that hair. In what was more of blunt force MLS era, Valderrama was a visionary and a poet with the ball. He set the league standard for assists in a single season back in 2000, and no one has gotten without shouting distance of matching his record of 26 in the 19 years since.
The LAFC winger is the relentless magician, pulling rabbits out of his hat nearly every time he steps on the field. Vela has notched at least one goal or assist in 40 of his 54 career MLS starts, and he’s chalked up two or more score sheet appearances 21 times (an obscene 39% of his starts). He routinely takes over games with that hypnotizing left foot, which gives him a fair shot at setting a new single season scoring record this year.
The former New York City FC forward was so elegant on the field, he should have played in a tux. El Guaje was no kid when he arrived to MLS in 2015, but he played like one, ranging all around the attacking half to run the Cityzens offense from build to bulge of the net. Villa was pure class from day one, establishing an identity both on and off the field for an expansion franchise in the media capital of the world.
And now, a brief shout out to the very honorable mentions who fell just short of the top 10:
- David Beckham — Having made his name starring for Manchester United and Real Madrid, he brought glitz, glamour, free kick goals and, eventually, a pair of crowns to the LA Galaxy.
- Dwayne De Rosario — With four MLS Cup wins and a half-dozen Best XI nods, De Ro is easily the greatest Canadian in league history.
- Marco Etcheverry — Many would argue the D.C. United maestro was the equal to, or even better than Valderrama. Of course, he also had a lot more help around him.
- Brad Friedel — Arguably the greatest American goalkeeper of all-time, Big Brad only played one full award-studded season in MLS before leaving the Columbus Crew SC for a long, glorious career in England.
- Tim Howard — The only ‘keeper in league history with consecutive Best XI nods and the first MLS player to complete a transfer to one of Europe’s true name brand clubs.
- Chad Marshall — From Columbus to Seattle, he was the gold standard for MLS center backs right up until his retirement earlier this year. The only man to claim three Defender of the Year prizes.
- Obafemi Martins — Formed a thrilling and fruitful Seattle partnership with Clint Dempsey. Unfortunately, it only lasted three seasons.
- Jaime Moreno — Other than Donovan, the only player in MLS history to hit the career century mark in both goals and assists. All told, Moreno helped D.C. United celebrate a dozen trophies.
- Eddie Pope — Though he could have jetted off to big old world clubs like AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund, the original MLS smooth criminal at the back opted to play his entire career in America.
- Preki — He was already 32 when he joined Kansas City for the inaugural MLS season, but dazzled league fans for nearly a full decade. The only man to score the MVP/Golden Boot double twice, with his second coming after he turned 40 (!!).
- Nick Rimando — Though he never took home Goalkeeper of the Year or topped the three goalkeepers mentioned above at the international level, the Real Salt Lake stalwart will retire holding almost every MLS goalkeeping record.
- Wayne Rooney — His pre-MLS resume, talent and performance for D.C. United are worthy of the main shortlist, but he’ll leave having only played two seasons in the capital. Still… winning a surprise MLS Cup could force a rethink.
- Guillermo Barros Schelotto — The veteran playmaker enjoyed four fine seasons in Columbus, including a dream 2008 that saw him claim the regular season and MLS Cup MVP trophies as the Crew ended up champs of both.
- Chris Wondolowski — At 36, the San Jose forward has posted his 10th straight season with double figures in goals. He’s one of the few players here whose pedigree was formed solely in MLS, but there’s no denying the all-time leading scorer.
- Diego Valeri — The Portland Timbers captain was the last man cut from the top 10. Due to his production, leadership and unmatched role as adopted son in his club’s city, it actually hurt to do it.