Ranking the 10 Soccer Superstars Who Attempted to Conquer America: The Most Notable Signings in MLS History Preceding Messi

The upcoming transfer of soccer icon Lionel Messi to Inter Miami of Major League Soccer (MLS) will undoubtedly be recognized as the most significant signing in the history of the league.

With an impressive collection of seven Ballon d’Or awards, four UEFA Champions League titles, a World Cup victory, and 12 league championships in Europe, Messi is undoubtedly the most accomplished player to join MLS.

However, he is not the first high-profile name to attempt to make an impact in the league.

Here is a list ranking the 12 most prominent stars who preceded Messi in the 28 seasons of MLS thus far.

1. David Beckham

  • Club: LA Galaxy
  • Years: 2007-2012
  • Games: 98
  • Goals / Assists: 18 / 31
  • Trophies: MLS Cup (2011), MLS Supporters’ Shield (2010)

When David Beckham arrived in Major League Soccer (MLS), his introduction was a groundbreaking event that had not been witnessed before in American soccer. Initially, his commitment to MLS was uncertain as he joined AC Milan in Serie A during the “offseason” of 2008/09 and 2009/10. However, once Beckham dedicated himself fully to the LA Galaxy, he played a crucial role in two consecutive successful seasons. While his presence boosted attendance for LA Galaxy matches, it had an even more significant impact on the attendance of other teams when they hosted the Galaxy. Beckham’s tenure in MLS marked the beginning of a period of growth that continues to thrive today.

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

  • Team: LA Galaxy
  • Years: 2018-2019
  • Games: 56
  • Goals / Assists: 52 / 13
  • Trophies: —

Zlatan’s ability to excel individually while having limited impact on team success highlighted the progress of the league following David Beckham’s era. Despite Zlatan’s impressive 30 goals, which ranked second in the league, the LA Galaxy finished 5th in the Western Conference and were eliminated in the second round of the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs.

Furthermore, it demonstrated the league’s growth that Zlatan could leave MLS and join an elite European club like AC Milan, where he maintained a comparable goal-scoring record to his time in MLS.

3. Thierry Henry

  • Team: New York Red Bulls
  • Years: 2010-2014
  • Games: 122
  • Goals / Assists: 51 / 37
  • Trophies: MLS Supporters’ Shield (2013)

At the age of 32, Thierry Henry joined MLS following a period of decline in form during his time with FC Barcelona. His performance with Barcelona decreased from 19 goals and 7 assists in 29 games to 4 goals and 1 assist in 24 games. However, in MLS, Henry proved to be a reliable and consistent player. He scored double-digit goals on four occasions and significantly increased his impact as a playmaker, averaging nearly 11 assists over his last three seasons in the league.

4. Kaka

  • Team: Orlando City
  • Years: 2015-2017
  • Games: 75
  • Goals / Assists: 24 / 21
  • Trophies: —

Similar to Messi, Kaka joined MLS as a previous Ballon d’Or recipient and a World Cup winner. He joined an Orlando organization that faced competitive difficulties, particularly as they were in their inaugural season as an expansion team when Kaka arrived.

Despite the team’s lack of success, failing to qualify for the playoffs, Kaka’s individual statistics showcased his continued exceptional playmaking abilities that had established him as one of the world’s finest players during his prime. These performances demonstrated that Kaka’s skills remained intact, even though his impact on the overall team’s success may have been limited due to the team’s challenges.

5. Andrea Pirlo

  • Team: New York City FC
  • Years: 2015-2017
  • Games: 69
  • Goals / Assists: 1 / 11
  • Trophies: —

The presence of Italy’s maestro from the 2006 World Cup-winning team, Andrea Pirlo, attempting to showcase his skills in a baseball stadium always seemed mismatched. Additionally, Pirlo did not possess the same level of physical capabilities as other players who had made late-career appearances in MLS. However, despite these factors, Pirlo managed to participate in 32 games in 2016 at the age of 36. His contributions aided the team in achieving a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.

6. Steven Gerrard

  • Team: LA Galaxy
  • Years: 2015-2016
  • Games: 34
  • Goals / Assists: 5 / 12
  • Trophies: 

Following his illustrious career, which included being the hero of Liverpool’s triumphant 2005 UEFA Champions League campaign and captaining the England national team in 38 matches, Gerrard made the decision to join LA after playing a farewell match at Anfield to conclude the 2014/15 Premier League season. In retrospect, it might have been more advantageous for him to transition directly into a coaching role.

7. Frank Lampard

  • Team: New York City FC
  • Years: 2015-2016
  • Games: 29
  • Goals / Assists: 15 / 3
  • Trophies: —

Prior to Atlanta United’s groundbreaking approach of investing ‘Designated Player’ money in young, developing talents like Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, Lampard was among a group of high-profile stars who eagerly embraced a late-career opportunity in MLS, enjoying a sort of respite from the intense scrutiny they faced in their home countries while also securing a lucrative payday. However, the combination of Lampard and Pirlo in the midfield for NYCFC did not result in the creation of an MLS powerhouse.

8. Didier Drogba

  • Team: Montreal Impact
  • Years: 2015-2016
  • Games: 33
  • Goals / Assists: 21 / 4
  • Trophies: —

The arrival of Drogba in the middle of the 2015 season brought great joy to Impact fans, resulting in a significant boost in average attendance from around 17,000 to a series of packed stadiums with capacities of 20,081 until the season’s end. The team managed to secure a playoff spot but unfortunately suffered a defeat in the conference semifinals of the 2015 season. However, in his second season, Drogba faced a decline in his performance and found himself excluded from the starting lineup towards the end of the year. He further faced consequences, including fines, for refusing to accept a place on the bench.

9. Wayne Rooney

  • Team: D.C. United
  • Years: 2018-2019
  • Games: 48
  • Goals / Assists: 23 / 13
  • Trophies: —

Rooney emerged as the leading goal scorer for D.C. United in his debut season, netting an impressive 12 goals in only 20 games. Any concerns regarding his dedication to the club were completely dispelled during a remarkable display in a closely contested regular-season match against Orlando City. In a pivotal moment, Rooney showcased his incredible determination by sprinting past midfield to halt an opponent’s counterattack, successfully dispossessed the ball, and swiftly delivered a pass that led to teammate Luciano Acosta scoring the winning goal. This remarkable play propelled D.C. United to a strong finish of 10 wins, 2 losses, and 3 draws, securing them a spot in the playoffs.

10. Gareth Bale

  • Team: Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC)
  • Years: 2022
  • Games: 12
  • Goals / Assists: 2 / 0
  • Trophies: MLS Cup (2022)

Bale’s tenure in MLS stands out as one of the most peculiar experiences for a superstar player. Following a period of being sidelined at Real Madrid and making only five appearances for them in the 2021/22 season, Bale made a surprising move to LAFC for a relatively modest salary of $1.6 million, covering the 2022 season. Presumably, this decision was aimed at preparing himself to lead the Welsh national team as their captain in the World Cup later that year.

During the MLS regular season, Bale had limited starts and scored only twice. However, he emerged as a hero during LAFC’s historic championship-winning campaign. In the MLS Cup final, Bale’s goal in extra time leveled the score against the Philadelphia Union, ultimately forcing a penalty shootout where his teammates emerged victorious. This decisive contribution from Bale played a crucial role in LAFC clinching their first-ever championship.

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