By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Apr 27, 2020) US Soccer Players – Scores of foreign stars have played in MLS over the past 25 years. Since the league’s inaugural season, World Cup stars and veteran players have opted to finish their careers on American soil. In recent years, younger players from around the globe have also decided to sign with MLS teams.
Compared to the world’s top domestic competitions, MLS has traditionally had the largest representation of players from around the world, while at the same time also nurturing US talent. A watershed moment came in 2007 with the introduction of the Designated Player Rule. That radically changed rosters across the league. England star David Beckham was the catalyst for encouraging others to follow in his footsteps following his move to the LA Galaxy.
Aside from Beckham, the league has seen its fair share of top international talent. Names like Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry instantly come to mind. In the era before Beckham, the league saw established stars Jaime Moreno, Carlos Valderrama, and Roberto Donadoni. Here is a Starting XI of international stars, in a 3-4-3 formation and no longer active, who have left a lasting legacy.
Defender: Jamison Olave
The Colombian-born defender was one tough player to get past thanks in large part to his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame that intimidated opposing strikers. Olave amassed 216 league appearances over nine seasons, a majority of those with Real Salt Lake. While he played for the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, he’s most famous for making RSL one of the league’s most competitive teams in the early 2010s. RSL won the 2009 MLS Cup. In 2010, Olave won MLS Defender of the Year.
Defender: Lubos Kubik
A center back with loads of international experience before coming to MLS, the Czech libero had played at the 1990 World Cup before signing with the expansion Chicago Fire in 1998. Lubos Kubik became the first non-American player to win Defender of the Year honors that season as the Fire won MLS Cup. Kubik was also strong in attack on set piece situations, using his height at 6-foot-2 to try and knock in goals. He played in MLS for two more seasons before ending his career in 2001 with FC Dallas.
Defender: Jose Goncalves
A native of Portugal, Goncalves was one of the best left backs to ever play in MLS. A loan deal that brought him from Swiss side Sion to the New England Revolution in 2013 turned out to be a great move by the MLS club. As a result of his stellar performance that season, Goncalves won Defender of the Year. He would play another three seasons for the Revs, helping the team to the playoffs three times over four years.
A two-way midfielder, Juninho remains one of the best central midfielders ever to play in MLS. He was a key member of the LA Galaxy team that captured the 2011, 2012, and 2014 MLS Cups, Juninho was known for his explosiveness with the ball and as a gifted passer who could also score from long-range.
Midfielder: Andrea Pirlo
A midfielder with plenty of pace and power, Pirlo brought his experience and style to NYCFC starting in 2015. A central midfielder who typically played as a deep-lying playmaker, Pirlo possessed both vision and strong passing accuracy. A World Cup winner with Italy in 2006 who made his career winning trophies with AC Milan and later Juventus, Pirlo was elegant to watch and made everyone around him better over his three seasons in New York.
Midfielder: Guillermo Barros Schelotto
Small in size but big on talent, ex-Boca Juniors star Guillermo Barros Schelotto remains one of the most decorated players in Columbus Crew history. A midfield general with the propensity to move forward when called on, he Argentine could play in the midfield, but also on the wings. Barros Schelotto played for the Crew for four seasons starting in 2010, helping the team win MLS Cup in 2008. He also scored 33 goals in 102 matches over that time, an impressive pace that places him sixth all time on the Crew’s scoring list.
Playmaker: Marco Etcheverry
The league’s first decade featured lots of great midfielders, but none was as successful as Etcheverry. A creative playmaker, Etcheverry led DC United to three of the first four MLS Cups, winning the league’s MVP award in 1998. Over eight seasons, all in the nation’s capital, Etcheverry put up impressive numbers scoring 34 goals in 191 games and adding 101 assists, a testament to his playmaking abilities. He still holds team records for most games played and assists.
Forward: David Beckham
The biggest international star in MLS history, Beckham got attention for what he did on and off the field. His move to MLS in July 2017 ushered in a new era, helping give the league credibility abroad. In his six seasons in the league, all with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he helped the team win back-to-back titles starting in 2011. Beckham’s time in Hollywood, widespread cultural appeal, and quality demonstrated on the field all helped propel MLS to new heights.
Forward: Thierry Henry
One of the finest strikers to ever play in the league, Thierry Henry signed with the New York Red Bulls following the 2010 World Cup. In his five seasons in New York, Henry could never win an MLS Cup, but he contributed in a big way in making RBNY one of the best teams in the league. His 51 goals in 122 games highlight the blistering scoring rate Henry was capable of even in his twilight years. Henry’s speed and ability to score once he got the ball in the box gave opposing goalkeepers nightmares.
Forward: Robbie Keane
Keane has scored more than 250 goals for club and country over his career, and that didn’t let up in MLS. Over six seasons starting in 2011 for the LA Galaxy, he scored 83 goals in 125 games for an average of 1.5 goals per game. His offensive power helped the Galaxy win MLS Cup three times.
Coach: Gerardo “Tata” Martino
The Argentine-born coach known for his high pressing and attacking style made Atlanta United FC a contender from the start. His presence helped to recruit other Latin American stars. The result was an MLS Cup for Atlanta in 2018.
Bench: Jorge Campos (goalkeeper), Jimmy Nielsen (goalkeeper), Philippe Senderos (defender), Carlos Mendes (defender), Mauricio Cienfuegos (midfielder), Dwayne DeRosario (midfielder), Carlos Valderrama (midfielder), Peter Nowak (midfielder), Eduardo Hurtado (forward), Jamie Moreno (forward), Kei Kamara (forward), Juan Pablo Angel (forward)
The bench features a mix of pre-DP and post-DP stars. Mexican international Jorge Campos was among that group of big-name internationals that joined the league during those early years. An ambassador for the game on and off the field, the flamboyant netminder played two seasons for the Galaxy. Joining him is Danish sensation Jimmy Nielsen who captained Sporting KC to an MLS Cup in 2013.
On defense, players like center back Philippe Senderos and Carlos Mendes were stalwarts for the Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls, respectively. In the midfield, former Colombia star Carlos Valderrama had big hair and a big presence to match as an attacking midfielder. He holds the distinction of winning the league’s first MVP winner. Other midfielders that also stood out include Peter Nowak, Mauricio Cienfuegos, and Dwayne DeRosario, a trio who added attacking power to the position.
No offense would be without former DC United striker Jaime Moreno, the top-scoring international star to play in the league with 133 goals in 340 games. If Moreno had pace and speed, Eduardo Hurtado added size and impressed for his ability as a poacher. Rounding out the best foreign-born strikers is Kei Kamara, another member of the league’s 100-goal club, and former New York Red Bulls striker Juan Pablo Angel.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com