Major League Soccer has been referred to as one of the fastest growing leagues in soccer, just as the game itself is growing rapidly in North America. However, some more cynical soccer purists refer to it as not even good enough to be a second-tier league. That said, more and more foreign-based players are packing up and moving across the Atlantic to ply their trade – most of them making that decision while in the twilight of their careers – and such a decision has paid off both for the players and for the league.
After David Beckham moved to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, the MLS has become an increasingly appealing league for European players wanting a new challenge in a new continent, and that was emphasized by the signing of former World Cup winner Thierry Henry to the New York Red Bulls in 2010. Soon after, the Galaxy won titles with three designated players with World Cup experience in Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane in tow.
With players such as Didier Drogba, Xavi and Carles Puyol linked to Stateside moves sometime in the future, it’s clear that the MLS is as appealing to foreign footballers more than ever, and its growth rate is showing no signs of slowing down. With Toronto FC going all out in signing Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Julio Cesar – all of whom could potentially be seen at this year’s World Cup – the MLS is trying its hardest to rid itself of their less-than-stellar reputation in the eyes of its cynics.
On this list, we will see who are the top 10 players currently in the MLS that had previously seen success in Europe both for their previous club teams and for their national sides. Let’s take a look at the cream of the crop.
10. Matteo Ferrari – Montreal Impact
Matteo Ferrari was never really a world-class defender while in his prime in the Serie A, but his exploits for Parma and Roma during the early-to-mid 2000s were good enough to get him 11 caps for the Italian national team and see him join the Azzurri in their ultimately disappointing campaign at Euro 2004 in which they got knocked out in the group stage. Ferrari last played for Turkish club Besiktas before signing with the Montreal Impact in 2012, and has become one of the team’s most consistently relied-on centre backs. In his career, Ferrari has won three Coppa Italias (one with Parma and two with Roma), one Turkish Cup with Besiktas, and one Canadian Championship in Montreal.
9. Kenny Miller – Vancouver Whitecaps
Known for being adept with headers above all else, Scottish striker Kenny Miller has adapted well to playing in the MLS after having joined the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2012. The four-time Scottish Premier League title winner was brought in as a designated player for the Whitecaps and has scored 10 goals out of 36 appearances so far. With previous stints at Rangers, Celtic and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Miller has Champions League experience through his time at Celtic, and was also capped 69 times – finding the back of the net 18 times – with the Scottish national team before retiring from international duty last August.
8. Marco Di Vaio – Montreal Impact
Life in the MLS initially took some getting used to for Marco Di Vaio, but he has settled in nicely with the Montreal Impact and has stepped up into his role as the team’s go-to guy up front – leading to a place in the MLS Best XI for 2013. Di Vaio was previously a well-travelled striker throughout the Serie A and other European leagues, playing for Lazio, Parma, Juventus, Valencia, Monaco, Genoa and Bologna before making his eventual move to the Impact. Di Vaio had been capped 14 times for the Azzurri, but was unfortunately part of the disappointing Italy squad at Euro 2004.
7. Michael Bradley – Toronto FC
The son of former U.S. national team coach Bob, Michael Bradley recently joined Jermain Defoe in moving from a major European league to Toronto FC, in search of more playing time after a somewhat unsuccessful stint with Roma in the Serie A. The native of Princeton, New Jersey had stints at Borussia Monchengladbach, Aston Villa and Chievo Verona before joining the Giallorossi and then TFC. Time will tell how he’ll adapt to the MLS after not having played in it since 2005, but the U.S. national team regular is still an elite level midfielder by MLS standards, and will be expected to keep that up in Toronto.
6. Tim Cahill – New York Red Bulls
Known as quite possibly one of the best players to ever come out of Australia, Tim Cahill moved from Everton – where he spent a large part of his career as one of their best midfielders – to the New York Red Bulls in 2012. The box-to-box midfielder has settled into life in the Big Apple handsomely, racking up 12 goals and six assists in 29 games for the Red Bulls last season. Internationally, Cahill is still arguably the most important player for a weak Aussie side, having previously played in the Socceroos’ last two World Cups and being the first Australian player to ever score in one.
5. Jermain Defoe – Toronto FC
One of the few pure strikers England can claim as one of their own, Jermain Defoe will be bringing his goalscoring talents to BMO Field for the start of the new MLS season. Defoe’s arrival has caused a bit of a stir already in Toronto, with ads on TV being promoted by TFC showing Brits all spitting out their beveraged upon hearing the news about Defoe’s transfer to Canada. A favourite with Spurs after two lengthy stints at White Hart Lane (with two seasons at Portsmouth in between), this move may or may not throw Defoe’s hopes for cracking Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad in doubt, given the considerable drop in terms of competition.
4. Landon Donovan – Los Angeles Galaxy
Quite possibly the greatest soccer player the United States has ever produced, Landon Donovan makes this list having gone on loan to Everton on two occasions after two disappointing stints with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich. Despite his lack of success overseas, Donovan’s accomplishments for both club and country are quite simply staggering. With 155 caps for the U.S. national team and 57 goals to his name in international play, as well as five MLS Cups with the Los Angeles Galaxy and previously with the San Jose Earthquakes, Landon Donovan will be counted on this summer in what will most likely be his final World Cup.
3. Robbie Keane – Los Angeles Galaxy
Previously a top-level striker in the Premier League with the bulk of his success coming through his time with Tottenham Hotspur, Robbie Keane has eased into life with the Los Angeles Galaxy after joining the club as a designated player in 2011. Captain of both the Galaxy and the Republic of Ireland national team, Keane is the fifth-highest-scoring international footballer in history, and was an integral element of the Galaxy’s two MLS Cup-winning sides in both 2011 and 2012. Although he has been an undisputed staple of the Irish national side since making his debut as a teenager in 1998, Keane’s international future past Euro 2016 – if the Republic of Ireland qualify – is up in the air.
2. Julio Cesar – Toronto FC
He may be entering his mid-30s, but Julio Cesar is still expected to be Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari’s first choice for goalkeeper at the World Cup that his home country will be hosting – and will be expected to win in front of their home fans. After consistently failing to even make the bench at Queen’s Park Rangers in the Championship this season, Julio Cesar’s former QPR teammate Ryan Nelsen threw him a lifeline and brought him to Toronto FC – which Nelsen is currently coaching – on loan to get game time prior to the World Cup. If the former Champions League winner can recapture his old form with a Toronto team now consisting of Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe, watch out for TFC this season.
1. Thierry Henry – New York Red Bulls
His resume is just unbelievable: two Premier League titles with Arsenal, two La Liga titles and one Champions League title with Barcelona, and two European Golden Boot Awards. And oh yeah, he won a little trophy called the World Cup in 1998 in his home country of France. Regardless of his previous accomplishments, Thierry Henry is clearly in the twilight of his sparkling career at the age of 36, and he has certainly succeeded in his high-profile switch to the New York Red Bulls in 2010, winning an MLS Supporter’s Shield trophy this past season. Moreover, Henry has proven he’s still good enough to go back to Europe on loan, returning to Arsenal – the club that made him into an elite superstar – for a brief part of the 2011-12 season, scoring a goal in the process.