The MLS is quickly growing in popularity, and much of that growth can be attributed to the marketability of their players. While the league is constantly being overlooked, they have been able to attract some of Europe’s brightest stars… once their star had started to fade.
The league has been referred to as a “retirement league” where washed up superstars come to end their career while getting paid millions of dollars. Some of the big-name signings, like David Beckham and Sebastian Giovinco, have enjoyed tremendous success on the field. There are some multi-million dollar duds too. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest names to come into the league and see how they fared.
Thierry Henry enjoyed a successful career with Arsenal and Barcelona before joining the New York Red Bulls in 2010. He was one of the most famous soccer players to come out of France and had a lot of hype following him to the Big Apple.
He signed a multi-year contract worth $5 million a year (with $5.6 million guaranteed) which, at the time, made him the highest paid MLS player, surpassing David Beckham. The French striker helped his club win a Supporter’s Shield in 2013 and made three MLS Best XIs.
Henry was surpassed as the highest paid MLS player in history, and the person who did it might surprise you.
Robbie Keane had one of the most successful late-career MLS transitions of all time. The Irish forward joined the LA Galaxy in 2011, becoming one of the club’s three allowed designated players, alongside David Beckham and Landon Donovan.
He ended up winning two MLS Cups and was selected to four MLS Best XIs. To top it all off, he won the league MVP award in 2014 when he had a career-high 19 goals and 14 assists in 29 games.
Jermaine Defoe decided to join the Toronto FC from Tottenham Hotspur in 2014 but it didn’t last long at all. The English striker ended up only staying a single season with the club before he returned to Sunderland at the beginning of 2015 as part of a deal that brought Jozy Altidore to Toronto.
He agreed to a four-year deal with Toronto that would end up paying him about £68,000–90,000 per week. He was unsettled with his new club, which was the main reason he got traded back to the UK.
Spanish striker David Villa joined NYCFC as the expansion team looked to draw some eyeballs in their inaugural season. He was named the first captain in team history and ended up drawing $5.6 million as a base salary.
He was the MLS MVP in 2016, is a two-time MLS Best XI selection, and ended up playing with NYCFC up until the end of 2018. He’s now playing with J1 League club Vissel Kobe to reunite with his former Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta.
Wayne Rooney is the all-time leading goalscorer for the England National team and for Manchester United. In summer 2018, he signed a three-and-a-half year deal with D.C. United.
After just three games with his new team, he was named the team’s captain. He was named the MLS Player of the Month for United and helped lead his team to an MLS playoff birth. He ended his first season with 12 goals in 21 games and was named United’s team MVP.
It’s not all that surprising that Kaká, the former FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner, was at one time the highest paid MLS player.
He became the highest paid player in MLS whe he signed with Orlando City in 2014. He had a base salary of $6.6 million per year, and with guaranteed compensation of $7.2 million per year. He spent three good seasons with the team before ultimately retiring in December 2017.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is a World Cup champion and a long time Bayern Munich superstar. His decision to leave the team and head to play for the Chicago Fire in 2017 was extremely tough.
The Chicago Fire were known to be extreme underachievers, so adding someone with such winning prowess was only going to benefit the franchise. In his first season with the team, he was named an MLS All-Star and led the team to its first MLS Cup playoffs in five years.
Carlos Vela was a stud for the Mexican National Team, as well as Real Sociedad in La Liga for many years. He’s a recent addition to the MLS when he decided to join the expansion franchise Los Angeles FC for the start of the 2018 season.
After a Twitter vote, Vela was voted as the captain of the MLS team in the MLS All-Star game against Juventus. He was named into the MLS Best XI in his very first season with his new club.
It’s very rare for a star player to head to the MLS while still in their prime, but that’s exactly what Sebastian Giovinco did. He left Juventus and became the most successful Designated Player in MLS history.
He’s currently the highest paid player in the league with a $7.1 million base salary. He’s been worth every penny as he won the league MVP in 2015 and led the Toronto FC to a Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup in 2017.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been one of the most recognizable faces in sports for over a decade. The 36-year-old Swede joined the LA Galaxy at the beginning of 2018 and made an impact right away, netting two goals.
In 2019, he was named the team captain and is currently making a $1.5 million base salary, which puts him in the top 40 highest players in the league. Not too bad for someone who is making a fraction of what they probably could on the open market.
See how the all-time leader in goals for Chelsea fared in his time with NYCFC in 2015.
In the summer of 2015, Didier Drogba signed with the Montreal Impact. He’s one of the most decorated strikers in the league and has the honor of being the first player to score a hat-trick in his first start in the MLS.
Drogba made an immediate impact (no pun intended) by scoring seven goals in his first five games. He was named a finalist for the 2015 MLS Newcomer of the Year Award and made the 2016 MLS All-Star Game.
Every MLS fan can thank David Beckham for putting MLS on the map. He was the first big name to sign in the league and even has the “Beckham Rule” (the league’s designated player rule which makes most of the big names signing possible) named after him.
Beckham was the highest paid player in MLS history at the time, bringing in about $32.5 million over a five-year span. He led the LA Galaxy to two MLS Cup titles and Supporter’s Shields.
Ashley Cole is probably one of the most celebrated and decorated left backs in the history of English soccer. He’s following many other star players by spending his final years playing in the MLS.
He joined the LA Galaxy in 2016 and his time with the team statistically has been subpar, to say the least. He was named team captain ahead of the 2018 season when the Galaxy missed the playoffs again. His leadership has been a redeeming quality despite his lack of output.
The former captain for Liverpool and the England National Team spent some time with the LA Galaxy in 2015. He signed an 18-month Designated Player contract that was reportedly worth $9 million.
He instantly caused some controversy when he was selected for the 2015 MLS All-Star game despite not having played a single game. His overall performance for the Galaxy slipped below the fan expectations and he didn’t enjoy the grueling MLS schedule. He retired after a year-and-a-half with the Galaxy.
Frank Lampard is the all-time leading goalscorer for Chelsea where he played for 13 years. He also had a little stint in the MLS with NYCFC in 2015. Lampard was expected to join the NYCFC at the start of the 2015 season, but Manchester City (the team’s parent club) wouldn’t let Lampard leave until the end of the Premier season.
Fans were outraged because many of them bought season’s tickets expecting to see Lampard. When Frank finally joined them, his time in the league was unremarkable and he ended up retiring after the 2016 season.
He’s one of the most celebrated players in the history of the MLS. Andrea Pirlo is widely regarded as one of the best midfielders to ever play the game because he had a vision of the field like no other.
When he signed with NYC, he became the highest paid Italian player in the league with an $8 million salary. He had some persisting physical problems by his third year in the league and it ended up being the reason he retired from professional soccer.
Jozy Altidore played in the MLS before it was trendy. He made his professional debut at age 16 with the New York Red Bulls in 2006 before heading off to Villareal.
He had taken stops in Spain and even played for Sunderland in the Premier League before returning to the MLS to play for the Toronto FC in 2015. He’s getting paid a base salary of $5 million which puts him in the top ten highest paid players in the league.
Michael Bradley is currently the third highest earning player in MLS with a $6 million salary and $6.5 million total compensation. The Princeton, New Jersey native played for Ashton Villa, Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga, Chievo, and now the Toronto FC.
Bradley won his first Supporter’s Shield with a 4-2 win over New York Red Bulls to clinch the top of the MLS with the most points that season. Toronto would go onto win the 2017 MLS Cup that same year.
Giovani dos Santos
Giovani dos Santos is one of the most versatile forwards in the world right now. He’s had stints in Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur, Mallorca, Villarreal, and made his way to the LA Galaxy.
His deal was reported to be around $7 million in total compensation which put him in the top 5 for salaries in the MLS right now. He played for the Galaxy for three seasons and made two MLS All-Star Game appearances. The team bought him out in 2019 and released him from the team.
The Montreal Impact announced they’d be signing mid-fielder Ignacio Piatti to a multi-year deal worth $4.7 million. That places him in the top ten highest players in the league right now.
He’s one of the few players on this list who have stayed long term with their MLS team (five-years and counting) after leaving an elite league in another part of the world. He’s the all-time top goalscorer of the Montreal Impact and second all-time assist leader.