Although Major League Soccer is a league that is growing at a quicker rate than ever nowadays, the league itself still has some ways to go before it properly establishes itself as a league that can compete with the biggest ones in the world. Case in point: many of the league’s World Cup-playing footballers over time have just been ones that represent the United States internationally, as many other countries tend to favour those who compete in their domestic league or in Europe. There are however, a few exceptions. In this list, we’ll be counting down 10 footballers who were competing in the MLS at the time they were selected for their country’s World Cup squad since the advent of the league in 1996.
Due to the fact that in 1998 the MLS hadn’t been growing at quite the rate it is in 2014, these 10 men aren’t very high profile save for the number one selection – who was famous not only for his footballing skills, but for his wild hair. Though many of these players were not world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination, their presence in Major League Soccer still saw them through to football’s biggest event, and prove that MLS players from outside the United States can be good enough to compete with the world’s best.
Several players are from smaller, unheralded CONCACAF countries such as Jamaica, Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago, while some others are from more established countries like Mexico, Nigeria and Colombia. Regardless of where they’re from, they’ve come into World Cup tournaments plying their club trade in the United States as the league continues to steadily develop despite it being considered inferior to leagues in other continents. Here are 10 of the men who have accomplished exactly this.
10 Uche Okafor (Nigeria, 1998)
Probably best known in his club career for being a journeyman – playing in Germany, Portugal and Israel among other countries for relatively short amounts of time each – before playing 106 matches with the Kansas City Wizards, Nigerian defender Uche Okafor was fortunate enough to travel to the World Cup in France in 1998 with his home country, playing only one out of the Super Eagles’ four games prior to being knocked out by Denmark in the Round of 16. Okafor retired in 2000 and went into coaching and sports punditry, continuing to live in the United States until his tragic death under suspicious circumstances in 2011.
9 Andy Williams (Jamaica, 1998)
Toronto-born Jamaican midfielder Andy Williams decided to play for Jamaica as opposed to Canada, and his decision paid off: he gained 97 caps for the Reggae Boyz, scoring 13 goals and making it to the 1998 World Cup in France, although he would only make one appearance in the finals as a substitute. Before he retired from football in 2011, Williams spent the vast majority of his playing career in the States, playing for the Columbus Crew, Miami Fusion, New England Revolution, MetroStars and the Chicago Fire before consistently holding down a place in Real Salt Lake’s squad from 2005 until his retirement.
8 Avery John (Trinidad & Tobago, 2006)
After several years of playing in the Republic of Ireland, Trinidadian defender Avery John made his way to the MLS in 2004, playing 75 matches with the New England Revolution before joining the USL’s Miami FC and then briefly back to the MLS in 2009 with DC United. John played international football with Trinidad & Tobago 65 times, making it to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. However, his debut match at the finals was one to forget: he received two yellow cards against Sweden and thus wasn’t able to play in the Soca Boys’ match against England. John hasn’t formally retired from the game, but has not found a club since 2010.
7 Andrew Boyens (New Zealand, 2010)
Known in particular for his time with Toronto FC and New York Red Bulls during his stay in the MLS, Kiwi defender Andrew Boyens is now a free agent after being released by the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2012. However, Boyens is probably better known internationally for being on the New Zealand team that surprised many at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa despite not advancing to the Round of 16. Although he did not play a single minute in the tournament, the New Zealand team of 2010 shocked the footballing world by drawing with Italy and not losing a single match during their campaign.
6 Cornell Glen (Trinidad & Tobago, 2006)
Cornell Glen’s footballing career has seen him in several different parts of the globe, having stints in Portugal, Vietnam and China (where he currently plays) over the years. However, Glen was playing in the MLS at the time of his selection for Trinidad & Tobago’s squad at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Playing for numerous different clubs in the States, Glen’s longest stints were with the Columbus Crew in 2005 and the San Jose Earthquakes from 2009-10. At the World Cup, Glen performed well despite the Soca Boys crashing out in the group stage, almost scoring against Sweden in their first match which ended in a draw.
5 Douglas Sequeira (Costa Rica, 2006)
Also known as El Esqueleto during his playing days, Douglas Sequeira played part of his footballing career in the United States, as he was under contract with Real Salt Lake when he was selected as one of Costa Rica’s 23-man squad for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Sequeira started the first two games of Los Ticos’ campaign at the tournament that ultimately ended with them losing all three group games and finishing bottom of Group A. Sequeira went to Tromso in Norway the next year before returning home to play with Saprissa, and retired from the game last year.
4 Roger Espinoza (Honduras, 2010)
It’s not a terribly common thing for foreign MLS players to experience success in the league and then go on to ply their trade in Europe, but that’s exactly what’s happened with current Wigan Athletic midfielder Roger Espinoza. The Honduran was previously under contract with Sporting Kansas City from 2008 to 2012, during which he was selected for Honduras’ squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Espinoza started Honduras’ first two group stage matches, playing the full 90 minutes against Chile but being subbed off at halftime against eventual champions Spain during a campaign that saw Honduras finish bottom of group H.
3 Claudio Suarez (Mexico, 2006)
Up until 2006, Claudio Suarez had played the entirety of his footballing career in his native Mexico, for UNAM Pumas, C.D. Guadalajara, and UANL Tigres. However, the defender with the most caps in history for the Mexican national team moved to Chivas USA in the MLS in 2006, where he would play until his retirement in 2009. 2006 was the year Suarez finished his international career, and did so by being named to the Mexican squad for that year’s World Cup in Germany. Although he wore the number two jersey, Suarez did not see a minute of action for El Tri in a campaign that saw them crash out to Argentina after extra time in the Round of 16.
2 Jorge Campos (Mexico, 1998)
Known almost as much for his idiosyncratic style as he was for his goalkeeping ability, Jorge Campos gained a staggering 130 caps over the course of his international career with Mexico from 1991 to 2004. When he made the squad for the 1998 World Cup in France – where he would be Mexico’s number one goalkeeper as they reached the Round of 16 – Campos was under contract with the Chicago Fire, with whom he would only play eight games. As far as his MLS career was concerned, he was more successful from 1996 to 1997 with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Campos retired from football in 2004.
1 Carlos Valderrama (Colombia, 1998)
The man better known as El Pibe had dazzling footballing skills to match his distinctive blond afro and mustache: Carlos Valderrama played 111 games for Colombia internationally and got 11 goals for his country in the process. When Valderrama was selected for his final World Cup tournament at the finals in France in 1998, he was under contract with the Miami Fusion, and would play for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Colorado Rapids after that until his retirement from the game in 2002 once he had reached his 40s. Known for his technique and passing ability, Valderrama also made it on the FIFA 100 in 2004.