It’s a tradition that began nearly four decades ago with football’s greatest legend – the ethereal Pele. At New York’s famous 21 Club in early June of 1975, the then 34-year-old Brazilian signed a contract to play for the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos. Pele’s arrival in the Big Apple was met with great fanfare, signaling the start of a new era in North America’s continuing love affair with a game that was imported from abroad.
The migration of the beautiful game’s most widely acclaimed figure to an uncharted football landscape would soon be followed by many others of great reputation in their advancing years. Ex-Italy international Giorgio Chinaglia joined the Cosmos the following year. Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto arrived in the New York camp in 1977. Meanwhile, maverick genius George Best made his way to the Los Angeles Aztecs, who would also go on to sign Johann Cruyff after the Dutchman departed Barcelona in 1979.
Despite the buzz created by attracting such star power, NASL would meet its demise by the mid-1980s. However, the foundations of a tradition that lasts to this day had been laid. Professional football returned to North America in 1996 via Major League Soccer, with distinctive Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama in tow. Eighteen years later, the league is littered with worldwide stars in the twilight of their careers. Thierry Henry was lost this week, but the likes of David Villa, Kaka and Frank Lampard are inbound. David Beckham, Alessandro Nesta and Hristo Stoichkov have all plied their trade on North American pitches in the MLS era among other beloved talents. The list goes on.
From here on out, only more of these names will be added to the annals of MLS history. Aging stars around the globe continue to be linked with moves to the ever-growing top flight in the United States and Canada, further enriching North America’s domestic football legacy.
Following are the top 15 players who could move to MLS before calling time on their professional careers, joining a long line of stars inspired by the trendsetting Pele.
15 Timo Hildebrand
As a German goalkeeper, life as a contemporary of Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann meant Timo Hildebrand was always measured against a high standard. Stuck behind the pair in the pecking order at the international level, he was able to eke out seven international appearances for Die Mannschaft. But he excelled at club level. Hildebrand was an icon during his eight-year senior career at Stuttgart, which culminated with him winning the Bundesliga title in the 2006-07 campaign. The German trained with the Seattle Sounders earlier this year before signing for Eintracht Frankfurt, where he’s been unable to get a game. Now rumors that the 35-year-old will take his talents to the Pacific Northwest have returned, as he’s been unable to establish himself in Frankfurt.
14 Peter Crouch
Few players stick out from the crowd like Peter Crouch. In an age of pint-sized footballers weaving in and out of defenders, the six-foot-seven striker stands an absolute giant. At 33 years of age, the former England international is currently on his 10th professional club at Stoke City, having twice represented both Tottenham and Portsmouth. Crouch continues to be a productive footballer with the Potters, tallying a total 16 goals and 13 assists in his last two-plus Premier League seasons. Yet his contract at the Britannia Stadium is set to expire in June and the club are yet to hand him fresh terms. Crouch reportedly held talks with the Philadelphia Union two years ago and it’s possible an MLS move could soon be on the cards.
13 Lukas Podolski
Lukas Podolski has had an odd career. The Polish-born Germany international excelled for Cologne as a youngster after graduating from the club’s academy, earning a dream move to Bayern Munich. But Podolski never really settled at Bayern, returning to his beloved Cologne three years later in 2009. In 2012, he was on his way to Arsenal, where in the wake of initial success he has found himself on the fringes of Arsene Wenger’s squad – directly after returning to the Emirates from Brazil as a newly-crowned World Cup champion. Podolski is still just 29, but finds himself at a crossroads. New York City FC and New York Red Bulls have both been said to be interested in his services. A move stateside at this point for Podolski would be surprising, given that the likes of Juventus are also tracking him while he still has plenty to offer in Europe.
Seen as one of the most purely talented players of his generation as a youngster, Robinho never quite reached the heights that were expected of him. That being said, the Brazilian boasts the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City and AC Milan on his resume – costing a total of €85 million in transfer fees over the course of his career. Robinho escaped San Siro over the summer to return to hometown club Santos on loan, stating that he has no intention to return to Milan. The 30-year-old was locked in negotiations with MLS expansion club Orlando City – who signed his former Rossoneri team-mate Kaka – over the summer, though no agreement was able to be reached. That being said, it’s entirely possible a North American switch could be engineered somewhere down the line, given that his long-term future remains unresolved.
11 Wesley Sneijder
There’s just something about Wesley Sneijder and transfer rumors. Ever since Inter forced the Champions League-winner out, moving him on to Galatasaray in January 2013, his name has been a fixture in gossip columns. Manchester United were constantly suggested as a prospective new home for the Dutchman, though such a move never quite made sense from United’s perspective. Now it’s been claimed he’ll seek a move back to Italy with either Juventus or AC Milan. But a possible MLS adventure looms in the background. Toronto FC are reportedly top suitors for the Netherlands international. However, his relatively young age – 30 – and high salary demands serve as complicating factors.
10 Javier Saviola
Javier Saviola has been all around Europe, though he's best remembered for his time at Barcelona. The Argentine joined the Blaugrana as a raw 19-year-old in 2001, starting off brilliantly but fading during his tenure at the Camp Nou. Saviola then had an unremarkable spell at Real Madrid, before representing Benfica, Malaga and Olympiakos. Now with Serie A’s Hellas Verona, he’s found his opportunities limited by the timeless Luca Toni and Uruguayan youngster Nico Lopez. The Argentine is reportedly not pleased about his lack of minutes and could seek a January transfer. He’s been strongly linked with the Seattle Sounders over the past few years and could decide the time is right to swap Europe for North America.
9 Ashley Cole
Love him or hate him, the divisive Ashley Cole is without question one of the finest full-backs of the past decade. Like it does with any footballer, however, the cruel nature of time has taken its toll on the former Chelsea man’s powers. Let go by the Blues in the summer, the Englishman skipped his home country to make a new life in Italy with AS Roma – where he hasn’t exactly flourished. Cole was put to the sword by Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben in the Champions League and has been roundly criticized by the Italian press for failing to settle in. The Giallorossi are said to have already lost patience with the veteran left-back and are ready to ship him out to MLS when 2015 rolls around. Cole’s agent has maintained that the 33-year-old is happy in the Eternal City, leaving his immediate future a mystery for the time being.
8 Michael Carrick
Things have changed at Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, but Michael Carrick remains a symbol of the club’s glory days. With Louis van Gaal now in charge following the short reign of David Moyes, Carrick has been vocal about wanting to restore the fear factor the Red Devils formerly possessed. Sitting out the first two months of the season with injury, Carrick returned to the side in November and has been inspired form since – even filling in at center-back due to absences. Yet the question remains of how long he’ll be kept on at Old Trafford. Carrick is now 33 and United look determined to continue revamping the squad by spending vast sums of money, threatening his place. Last year it was alleged that MLS would push to bring Carrick to North America, though it’s likely he’ll remain at United as long as he’s wanted.
7 Steven Gerrard
Nobody is as beloved as Steven Gerrard at Anfield these days, but the Liverpool man’s future on Merseyside is currently in doubt. Criticized for some of his displays this season, the 34-year-old’s current deal with the Reds is set to expire in June. Manager Brendan Rodgers confirmed this week that Gerrard has been offered a new contract, yet was quick to note that the club captain hasn’t made the decision whether to commit to Liverpool or not. New York Red Bulls are reportedly at the front of the queue to snap Gerrard up should he choose to move on, in a bid to counter New York City FC’s deals for David Villa and Frank Lampard.
6 Samuel Eto’o
Samuel Eto’o is yet another interesting case. The Cameroonian won three La Liga titles and the Champions League twice with Barcelona before joining Inter, where he picked up a Scudetto, two Coppa Italia winner’s medals and another Champions League crown. Then it was off to Russia with nouveau-riche Anzhi Makhachkala, with whom he signed the most lucrative contract in football history – only to see the club undergo a financial meltdown. Eto’o made his way to the Premier League with Chelsea last summer, playing under former Inter boss Jose Mourinho again. Now at Everton on a two-year contract, the 33-year-old has hit three Premier League goals so far this season. Prior to joining the Toffees, Eto’o was heavily tipped to make his way across the pond to join Toronto FC. When he decides his time in Europe is up, it’s likely this option will be revisited.
5 Miroslav Klose
Like Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose returned to his club after winning the World Cup in the summer to find himself usurped. The German became the top scorer in World Cup finals history during the tournament in Brazil, only to be unseated as Lazio’s main striker by the younger Filip Djordjevic. Klose said on Monday that he will seek talks with the Biancocelesti hierarchy in an effort to resolve the situation, unhappy with sitting on the bench. This has reportedly grabbed the attention of several unnamed MLS sides, who are eyeing up the chance to pry the 36-year-old away from Serie A. Klose revealed last summer that he turned down two offers from American clubs to stay at Lazio, so contact has clearly already been made on some level.
4 Didier Drogba
As final acts for a club go, Didier Drogba looked to have secured one of the most dramatic in history in the 2012 Champions League final. Equalizing for Chelsea just before full-time, the Ivorian went on the hit the winning penalty in the shoot-out after extra-time, as the Blues overcame a ravenous Bayern Munich side. One month later, he was gone from the club, out of a contract. After adventures in China and Turkey, the 36-year-old returned to Stamford Bridge over the summer to extend his legacy and provide cover for Diego Costa and Loic Remy. Drogba is on a one-year contract and probably will be on his way out again in due time, with rumors cropping up that New York City FC and Seattle Sounders are keen to have him. Moving to MLS would be a fitting end to a glittering career, though it remains to be seen where Drogba will end up.
3 Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo has it all. A trophy case stuffed with domestic, continental and international silverware, a frankly immaculate beard and a sublime right foot have made him one of the world’s most intriguing footballers. At 35, the Juventus maestro continues to play at a high level and currently finds himself in pursuit of a fourth straight Serie A title to add to his incredible list of accomplishments. The Bianconeri even saw fit to extend his contract until 2016 back in June, as the club is confident that he’ll continue to perform even in his advancing years. Pirlo said in August that he would consider moving to MLS when his current Juventus terms expire at the end of the 2016 season. LA Galaxy are reportedly pushing to sign him earlier, but with Pirlo wanting to stay in Italy, it’s hard to see them succeeding unless he changes his mind.
Xavi’s list of accomplishments is so long it reads more as an anthology than a catalog. A two-time European champion and World Cup-winner, the Spaniard was the heart and soul of Pep Guardiola’s unstoppable Barcelona side that took the club football scene by storm. But at 34 years of age, his influence at the Catalan club has been lessened of late. The arrival of Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla has seen him take a step back and an exit from the only club Xavi has ever known has been mooted. New York City FC are seen as prime contenders for his services, looking to add more European stars on top of Lampard and Villa.
Perhaps there isn’t a more distinctive footballer in the world than Ronaldinho. The 2005 Ballon d’Or winner has embarked on a nomadic journey ever since leaving AC Milan in 2010, returning to his native Brazil with Flamengo before moving on to Atletico Mineiro and now Mexican outfit Queretaro. It’s almost hard to believe that Ronaldinho is still just 34 years old given how long ago he left Europe behind, meaning he has plenty of time to take his talents to North America. Despite only signing with Queretaro in September, the Brazilian has been heavily linked with a quick exit from the Liga MX club. Mexican reports have cited LA Galaxy as a possible destination, though Angolan outfit Kabuscorp are putting up a strong challenge for his services. Getting Ronaldinho in the door would be a major win for MLS from a marketing standpoint, given the Brazilian’s mass appeal worldwide.