10. Federico Higuain, Columbus Crew SC
At one point it may have been easy to dismiss Higuain as nothing more than the brother of the much more famous Gonzalo. That time has long passed, with the playmaker establishing himself as one of MLS’s best over the course of five seasons (and counting) with Columbus. Higuain’s numbers may not scream out for attention, but 39 goals and 35 assists in 123 games is nothing to sniff at. Rather, Higuain’s importance is best seen over the course of a game, realizing all the small work he does off the ball to make Columbus one of the most consistently dangerous attacks in the league. He takes the league seriously, and the league certainly returns the favor.
9. Juan Pablo Angel, New York Red Bulls
Before Robbie Keane and Sebastian Giovinco redefined the maximum expectation for a DP forward in MLS, there was Angel. The Colombian came to the New York Red Bulls after a successful career in England with Aston Villa, becoming one of the first players signed with the “Beckham Rule.” He instantly added quality to the Red Bulls, scoring 19 goals with five assists in 24 games during his first season, followed by double-digit goal totals in each of his next four seasons. That was enough to firmly establish him as his club’s all-time leading scorer, until Bradley Wright-Phillips took the honor this past season.
If there’s a knock on Angel that prevents him from being listed among the best of the best, it’s his sharp decline after leaving New York. Angel scored just three goals in 22 games with the Galaxy after leaving, and he ended his MLS career with a forgettable stint at Chivas USA.
8. David Villa, NYCFC
7. Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
Along with Higuain, these are the only two active players on this list, and they’re listed together here because of their combined impact on the league in an extremely short amount of time. Giovinco and Villa each arrived to clubs in adverse circumstances (Giovinco to a Toronto team trying desperately to reverse its awful on-field history, Villa to an NYCFC team that hadn’t even played a game yet). They each had impressive résumés at the highest point of European club soccer (Villa’s moreso than Giovinco’s, but still). There was ample reason to think that one or both of them would see MLS as too much of a step down to take seriously.
That clearly hasn’t been the case. Giovinco and Villa have combined to win the last two league MVP awards, while scoring a total 80 goals with 43 assists in 124 combined games. They are the two most marketable foreign stars in the league, drawing eyeballs (and butts in stadium seats) wherever they go. And moreover, they have either completely transformed a club’s losing culture into a winning one (Giovinco) or helped build a winning culture from scratch (Villa). Their MLS careers have been short ones so far, but both players have been worth every penny spent to bring them here.
6. Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers
Valeri may not have the name recognition of Beckham, Keane, or others on this list, but there’s no denying that he has been one of the league’s most exciting played since moving from Lanus to the Portland Timbers in 2013. Valeri follows in a long line of gifted MLS playmakers, which includes names like Preki, Marco Etcheverry, and Javier Morales. The Argentine has scored 32 goals with 47 assists in 116 games with Portland, forming a dangerous attack with seemingly whoever the Timbers decide to play as striker, and he has an MLS Cup MVP trophy to his name as well.
Moreover, Valeri has become something of an unofficial ambassador for the league. Put simply: he loves being here, and he loves being in Portland. In doing so, the bond between Valeri and Timbers fans is as strong as anybody on this list, and that’s something well worth paying for.
5. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus Crew SC
Schelotto was Higuain’s predecessor in Columbus, similar in so many ways that it’s a little bit unnerving. Like his fellow Argentine, Schelotto did most of his good work in subtle ways, though he was capable of popping up at any time and delivering a killer assist. In 2008, Schelotto racked up 19 assists to go with seven goals as he led the Crew to an MLS Cup victory (after a playoffs in which he assisted on six goals over the course of four games) and himself to MLS MVP honors.
Schelotto has since gone on to manage Argentine power Boca Juniors, which may make him the most prominent ex-MLS player currently managing a club.
4. Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chicago Fire
What else is there to say about Blanco? The Mexico forward was a player El Tri fans adored like few others, while also being the player U.S. national team fans loved to hate more than just about anyone else. As it turned out, his scrappy, unconventional game was a perfect fit for MLS when he signed in 2007, becoming the league’s second Designated Player. He was on the downside of his career then, and while he didn’t set the league on Fire (pun totally intended), he packed more than enough highlights into his tenure to justify his price.
3. Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls, once a laughingstock of the league, are now perennially one of its strongest teams. Many people are to thank for this turnaround, but Henry is absolutely one of them. The French striker’s status as one of the best players of his generation was already confirmed when he joined the Red Bulls, so the gravitas he brought to that team could have been a burden. Instead, he used it as a tool to motivate his teammates, some of which seemed to raise their game with him around (Wright-Phillips, for example). Sure, there were some angry glares from Henry here and there when passes weren’t played correctly, or goals not finished off. But they seemed to come from a place of high expectations, rather than pity.
That’s all to say nothing of his own quality play with the team. Henry scored at least 10 goals in all but his truncated first season with the team, including some that simply took your breath away.
2. Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy
Keane may not have been even close to the commercial worth of Beckham (there's the famous photo of Keane, Beckham and Russell Brand at a Lakers game where he is identified as an "unidentified fan"), but his on-field impact on the league is such that he can fairly be considered as one of the league’s greatest signings of all time. Keane scored 83 goals over the course of his five seasons with the Galaxy, enough for 13th on the league’s all-time scoring charts (though Keane played at least 25 fewer games than anyone else in the top 25). He also added 45 assists.
Unlike other signings that either never took the league seriously (or, like Beckham, took their time to acclimate), Keane was an immediate success, and his professionalism led the Galaxy to their most successful spell as a club: With Keane, the Galaxy won three MLS Cups and a Supporters’ Shield, and it wasn't until Keane arrived that the Donovan-Beckham-era Galaxy became champions. He was named in the league’s Best XI four times, and won MVP honors in 2014.
1. David Beckham, LA Galaxy
When it was first created, the Designated Player status was known colloquially as the “Beckham rule.” That should tell you all you need to know about the importance of Beckham’s significance to MLS, even if nobody really calls DP’s “Beckham rule” signings anymore. The LA Galaxy changed their logo and jersey concept to coincide with his arrival and signed multiple lucrative sponsorships while becoming the league's marquee franchise on a global scale.
But for as much as Beckham improved MLS’s commercial prospects, it’s tough to see his first years as anything other than a series of disappointments. Hampered by injuries, sub-par play, and a rift Donovan, Beckham didn’t exactly ingratiate himself to the Galaxy crowd after an extended loan to AC Milan in 2008, which was repeated in 2009.
His last seasons, though, were unqualified successes. Beckham and Donovan patched up their differences, and teamed up to win the Supporters’ Shield in 2010 and 2011 plus back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012. He scored nine goals and added 24 assists in that time and was a Best XI selection in 2011. Over time, Beckham seemed to take the league’s competition more seriously, and by the end he became a true asset to his club and the soccer nation he had hoped to help build by coming here. Now if he can just take care of that soccer stadium in Miami...