It is perhaps a little disrespectful to use the phrase ‘too good’ in regards to a player in the MLS, given that it is still a league in its infancy and needs star players in order to give the league some credence and respectability. That being said, one can’t deny that it is a phrase which is often used, particularly when a player who is considered to still have much to offer in Europe or South America packs up and heads over to North America.
The MLS, with the greatest deal of respect, hadn’t had many top class players largely until recent years. Even then, it is often seen as something of a retirement home for stars who are perhaps somewhat ‘passed it’. World class players such as Lothar Matthaus and Hristo Stoichkov have graced the league, but both were in the mid-late 30s and no longer anywhere near their best, hence their omission. Ditto for Didier Drogba, who has torn up the league as part of the Montreal Impact, but at 37 years old, it’s the right spot for him.
This list takes into account the players’ ability at the time in which they joined MLS. That doesn’t mean there are no older players, just only older players who could still have given a great deal in a league of perhaps greater quality. Here are the top 15 players who are/were too good for the MLS:
15. Juan Pablo Angel
Juan Pablo Angel had turned 30 when he headed to the States, he was 32 to be precise, but he was still a quality player. He joined the New York Red Bulls from Aston Villa, where he had previously become the Birmingham clubs record signing. By the time Angel came towards the end of his MLS career he was no longer too good for the league, but in his early years, particularly his debut season, he was. He made the MLS Best XI in his first season, scoring 19 goals in 24 games, and scored a total of 58 in 102 for the Red Bulls, later having less impressive spells with the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas.
14. Tim Howard
Tim Howard was eventually recognized as being too good for the MLS, when he was snapped up by Manchester United in 2003, but for a long time prior to that his outstanding ability in the league had been clear. Howard has had to overcome OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome in his sporting pursuits, but became an emerging talent with the MetroStars, who he joined in 1998.
He had already made his debut for the USMNT in 2002, and after four years as a backup at Manchester United, Howard has gone on to have an impressive career. At Everton, he has played almost 400 games, winning 105 caps for the U.S. National Team in the process.
13. Marco Etcheverry
The MLS has had a few stars who have hailed from Bolivia, but few matched the impact of Marco Etcheverry. Having already played domestic soccer in Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, Etcheverry moved to the U.S. and joined D.C. United in 1996. The MLS was not a strong league at that time, and D.C. United were certainly the star team, racking up three MLS Cups, two Supporters Shields, a CONCACAF Champions League, a Copa Interamericana and a U..S Open in his time with the club. He was a four-time MLS Best XI member, and remained a star of the Bolivian national team during his time in the MLS.
12. Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan is regarded by some as the greatest player of the MLS era in American soccer. Despite his early retirement from the sport last year, Donovan still holds the record as the all-time MLS top scorer, as well as the all-time top scorer and leading assist creator for the USMNT. Donovan spent 13 years in the MLS, with the San Jose Earthquakes and L.A. Galaxy, where he became a national star. A
lthough his time in the Bundesliga produced little, Donovan looked a decent player in his two loan spells at Everton, and could have made a respectable career for himself in Europe had he wanted to.
11. Cuauhtemoc Blanco
A Mexican legend and one of the country’s all-time greats, Cuauhtemoc Blanco was always likely to be a hit when he joined Chicago Fire in 2007, becoming the second highest paid player in MLS to David Beckham. He made an instant impact, nominated as MVP and Newcomer of the Year in his first season, and being named in the MLS Best XI in his second season in the U.S. In the 2008 MLS All-Star game against West Ham, Blanco scored one and assisted one, despite playing only 46 minutes.
He may have been in his mid 30s when he joined MLS, but his class was there for all to see, and Mexican giants America will wish the four-time Mexican Division MVP had hung around a little longer.
10. Clint Dempsey
Clint Dempsey spent six years playing in the Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham, sandwiched by two impressive spells in MLS. The first, lasting two years, came with the New England Revolution, where he made his name, scoring 25 goals in 71 games, making both the 2005 and 2006 MLS Best XI. After six years away, when Dempsey returned, he still looked a cut above most of the MLS. Since joining the Seattle Sounders, Dempsey has scored a mightily impressive 24 goals in 50 games, despite not playing as an out-and-out striker. With 48 goals for the USMNT, Dempsey is second to only Landon Donovan on the national all-time top scorers list.
9. Robbie Keane
Robbie Keane’s time in the MLS has been an absolute revelation. The goals had begun to dry up for the Irishman in the Premier League, when he made the move to L.A. Galaxy in 2011. While for some players, the drop in quality doesn’t always mean guaranteed success, for Keane it did. He has scored 73 goals in 108 games for the Galaxy, and has continued to be a regular for the Irish national team.
When Keane was loaned back to the Premier League with Aston Villa, in 2012, he scored three goals in six games. This twinned with his international form shows Keane could still do it against top class opposition, but American soccer fans are delighted he is choosing to strut his stuff in MLS.
8. Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo may not have made the blistering start to life in the MLS that many may have expected, but the fact is, if Pirlo had wanted to remain in Europe last summer, he would have had a queue of top class clubs interested in him. He was named seventh in the UEFA Best Player in Europe awards for 2015 and made the 59-player shortlist for the 2015 Ballon d’Or. Even at 36, Pirlo’s game has barely dropped off, such is the style in which he plays. Since joining the MLS, Pirlo has made 13 appearance, creating 5 assists but failing to score a goal as of yet.
7. Giovani dos Santos
Giovani dos Santos may not be of the same caliber as some on this list, but what sets him apart is the age in which he joined MLS. The Mexican forward is only 26 years of age, and after failing to become a mainstay in either the Barcelona or Tottenham teams, dos Santos appeared to have found his feet in Europe with Mallorca and Villarreal. Having scored 11 goals and recording eight assists in La Liga, there was certainly some surprise when Dos Santos joined the L.A. Galaxy earlier this year.
Since joining MLS, dos Santos has scored four goals and made six assists in nine games, and many will feel he should’ve proven himself a little more in Europe before joining the league.
The 2007 Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year winner, Kaka was outstanding in his six years with AC Milan. A big money move to Real Madrid proved unsuccessful, and a return to Milan failed to reignite the Brazilian’s career in Europe. No longer able to attract the biggest and best clubs in European soccer, Kaka became one of the biggest names to grace MLS, joining Orlando City in 2014.
In 29 games for Orlando City, Kaka has 10 goals and seven assists to his name, including a couple of sublime solo efforts. Still only 33, a player of Kaka’s ability shouldn’t have had to turn to MLS so early, and still part of the Brazil set-up, his quality is there for all to see.
5. Thierry Henry
Arsenal legend Thierry Henry is without doubt one, if not the greatest player of the Premier League era. At his best, Henry had searing pace, sublime technique and ruthless finishing in front of goal. The pace may have oozed away, but Henry was still a class act when he joined the New York Red Bulls in 2010, aged 33.
Henry spent five seasons in MLS, scoring 51 goals in 122 games in the league, and being named in the MLS Best XI for three of those seasons, twice as a forward and once as a midfielder. He went on-loan to Arsenal in 2012, and still looked every bit worthy of being a Gunner, and Arsenal fans may wish he had rejoined them in 2010, rather than make the move across the pond.
4. Carlos Valderrama
Carlos Valderrama may well be best remembered for his distinctive hair and flamboyant style of play, but behind all the pomp there was a seriously talented footballer. In terms of technique and intelligence, Valderrama was up there with the best. At the age of 35, the Colombian joined MLS, becoming a sort of Beckham of the 1990s, giving the game a real boost in popularity at the time.
He was head and shoulders above everyone else, as Valderrama recorded 26 assists in the 2000 MLS season, a record which remains in tact, with Valderrama the only player in MLS history to record 20+ assists in a single season. He was named in the MLS Best XI three times and the league’s MVP once.
3. Guillermo Barros Schelotto
Former Argentine international Guillermo Barros Schelotto arrived in MLS with 17 titles as a player to his name and 10 caps for Argentina, and the success continued in MLS. In three seasons in MLS, Schelotto won six titles with Columbus Crew, as well as being named in the MLS Best XI twice and the league’s MVP once. After leaving MLS in 2010, Schelotto returned to play in Argentina. Schelotto’s 19 assists in the 2008 MLS season ranks second on the all-time list, behind only Valderrama, and he now manages Argentine Primera Division side Lanus.
2. David Beckham
A controversial pick so high up this list given that David Beckham’s time in MLS is often viewed as having been a little underwhelming. His debut season was hampered by injuries, with Beckham only playing five MLS games, despite the media circus which surrounded him. He was criticized by many Galaxy fans for his two loan moves to AC Milan in 2009 and 2010, but the truth was, while his move to MLS may have been good for Beckham’s brand, it had not been good for his playing career, and with the 2010 World Cup fast approaching, Beckham knew he had to be playing in Europe to stand a chance.
The fact that a club such as AC Milan still wanted Beckham showed his class at that age, and he impressed in Italy. His best years in MLS actually came towards the end of his time in the league. He had the second most assists in the league in 2011, making the MLS Best XI for the season, and scored nine goals and made seven assists in his final season, in 2012. Beckham was 31 when he agreed to join the club, and really should have made the move when he was a little older.
1. Sebastian Giovinco
The phrase “too good for MLS” is one which has largely come into common parlance because of this man. Sebastian Giovinco has lit up the league since joining Toronto FC earlier this year. The little Italian who is nicknamed the ‘Atomic Ant’ in his native Italy is by no means the biggest name to play there, but aged just 28, he is probably the finest player to grace the league. At times, it has looked like men against boys watching Giovinco up against MLS defenders, and not because of Giovinco’s diminutive frame.
Giovinco has had an outstanding debut season, setting a record for the most combined goals and assists in an MLS league season, winning the MLS Golden Boot and helping Toronto to their first MLS Cup Playoffs in their history. So good has been Giovinco’s form since joining Toronto that he has been linked with a move to Barcelona. While unlikely, it shows what a talent he is, and a return to Europe is not completely off the cards.
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