The history of soccer in the United States is a curious one. Played since the 1860's, it has not been greeted with quite the popularity that the sport has found in other reaches of the globe. In 1968 the North American Soccer League was founded and through the ambitious signings of the New York Cosmos, soccer in America began to gain some momentum. The Cosmos themselves attracting large crowds, sometimes in excess of 70,000.
However, despite spells of popularity, the league struggled to attract enough interest to maintain itself and began to decline in the early 1980's, as indoor soccer seemed to capture the public's imagination. The league folded in 1984, but when the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup, interest in the sport flourished once more. In 1996 the MLS was created and has been growing ever since. Today, soccer is the third most popular sport in the U.S. and continues to grow at a rapid rate.
Given the struggle for mass interest that soccer has labored with over the years in America, one may expect that the quality of players attracted to the country's shores may be a bit limited, but this is not the case. It may be that players began playing in the U.S. when they were past their prime, this list is not in relation to their performance in America but merely the most talented players to have ever played professionally in the United States, or in the major U.S. league at the time (including Canadian teams).
20 Ruud Krol
Ruud Krol narrowly edges out another man who featured for the Vancouver Whitecaps, England's 1966 World Cup winner Alan Ball. Krol was one of the finest defenders of his generation. Versatile and graceful, as was often the case with the Holland side of this era, he could play any position along the back line. A regular in both the superb Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970's who introduced 'Total Football' to the world, Krol won six Eredevise titles, three European Cups two UEFA Supercups, as well as becoming a World Cup runner-up twice. On an individual level he made two World Cup Team of the Tournaments and one European Championship Team of the Tournament. His time in Vancouver was brief, staying only a single season, playing 14 times before leaving for Napoli.
19 Zoltan Czibor
The Hungary team of the early 1950's, often hailed as the greatest of all time, was built around a core of six supremely talented players, of which Czibor was one. Blessed with great pace and unerring ball control, Czibor became an integral part of the Hungary team which went 32 consecutive games unbeaten, and enjoyed spells at a number of clubs in Hungary before joining Barcelona, where he won two Spanish Championships. He joined Toronto City in 1965, where he played in the short lived United Soccer Association, featuring both American and Canadian teams.
18 David Beckham
David Beckham's ability as a footballer has been both wildly overplayed and harshly underplayed. The truth is that he was a very gifted wide midfielder, who could strike a ball, particularly a dead ball, as well as anyone else in the history of the game. His consistently excellent deliveries from wide areas made him valuable to any side he graced. He began his career at Manchester United, before joining Real Madrid and eventually becoming the biggest signing of the modern MLS era when he joined LA Galaxy in 2007. Beckham spent five years with the Galaxy, playing over 100 games and scoring 20 goals.
Vava, as he was commonly known, was an exceptionally talented goalscorer who is surprisingly overlooked by those outside of his native Brazil. A deadly striker, Vava was the first man to score in multiple World Cup finals, and to this day only Pele, Paul Breitner and Zinedine Zidane have matched the feat. What's more, the finals Vava scored in, he also won; winning both the 1958 and 1962 World Cups with Brazil, scoring nine goals over the course of both tournaments. Vava was in his mid-30's when he moved to California to join the San Diego Toros where he stayed from 1968-69, scoring five goals in 28 appearances.
16 Johan Neeskens
Like Krol, Johan Neeskens was a regular in the great Ajax and Holland teams of the 1970's, as well as spending five years at Spanish giants Barcelona. Sir Alf Ramsey said of Neeskens that he was, "as good as anyone," high praise from a World Cup winning manager. Twinning exceptional natural ability with an unfaltering engine, Neeskens moved from right-back to central midfield where he became adept at dominating games at the highest level. He spent five years with the New York Cosmos between 1979 and 1984, as well as sporadic spells at Ford Lauderdale Sun and Kansas City Comets, playing roughly 120 games in the U.S. in almost seven years.
15 Elias Figueroa
Elias Figueroa is not as highly regarded as he should be, or at least that is the common consensus held by those who witnessed him in action. Figueroa won multiple awards as the best player in Brazil and South America throughout the 1970's, despite the presence of the likes of Pele and Jairzinho, this should give some indication of the defenders' talents. Both physically dominant, mentally agile and technically superb, Figueroa has been described as the "perfect defender", and regularly compared to Franz Beckenbauer. He spent just a year in the U.S, with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in Florida, where he played 22 games.
14 Hristo Stoichkov
The greatest player Bulgaria have ever produced and one of the finest of his generation, Hristo Stoichkov won the Ballon d'Or in 1994, a year in which he won a double with Barcelona as well as taking Bulgaria to a World Cup semi-final, winning the competition's Golden Boot in the process. He became Europe's top scorer with CSKA Sofia, before joining Barcelona's 'Dream Team' where he won everything on offer in Europe over a five year period. Stoichkov ended his career in the States, although it was not a mere cameo appearance, spending three years in the MLS. His first two seasons with Chicago Fire, followed by one at D.C. United, he won a U.S. Open Cup with Chicago Fire in 2000.
13 Carlos Alberto
Carlos Alberto Torres, to give him his full-name, is up there with the pantheon of footballing greats. Captain of arguably the greatest national team in history, namely the 1970 World Cup winning Brazil team, Alberto scored the last goal of the final, regarded by some as the greatest ever scored. He was one of the 11 players selected for the World Team of the 20th Century in 1998 and had a tremendous club and international career, predominantly with Santos and Brazil. He spent five years in the US, playing 100 games for the New York Cosmos and 19 for the California Surf, winning the NASL Soccer Bowl Championship four times and the Eastern Division, National Conference four times.
12 Gordon Banks
Regarded by many as the finest goalkeeper in the history of the game, Gordon Banks became a World Cup winner with England in 1966 and pulled off the 'Save of the Century' (also known as the 'Greatest Save of All Time) against Brazil in 1970 when he prevented a Pele header from finding the back of the net. Banks was forced to retire from football in 1972 when a car crash cost him his sight in one eye. However, after five years out of the game he returned to soccer in the U.S. with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1977. Banks's time in Florida wasn't his first taste of soccer in America, having spent seven games on loan with the Cleveland Stokers in 1967. Banks won the division with the Strikers in 1977 and was named 'NASL Goalkeeper of the Year', not bad for a 40-year-old who was blind in one eye.
The second most prolific goalscorer in the history of the game, Romario scored over 1,000 goals in a career spanning 24 years. He spent his best years in Europe, with PSV and Barcelona, although he continued to score goals for fun well into his 30's when he returned to his native Brazil. At the ripe old age of 40, Romario joined Miami FC, where his years did not show, as he scored 19 goals in 25 games, starring alongside former Brazil teammate Zinho. Romario already had fond memories of playing in the U.S, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994, he won the Golden Ball as the best player at the tournament, as well as winning FIFA World Player of the Year in the same year.
10 Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry is arguably the finest player of the Premier League era, and is Arsenal and France's all-time record goalscorer. With frightening pace, dazzling technique and a lethal finish, in his prime, Henry was essentially a complete forward. In his career, he won titles in France, England and Spain, as well as winning the Champions League, European Championship and the World Cup. He won the Premier League Golden Boot four times, the European Golden Boot twice and was named in the UEFA Team of the Year on five separate occasions. His foray into American soccer came in 2010, when he joined the New York Red Bulls from Barcelona. Henry spent four years with the club, scoring 51 goals in 122 games, winning the MLS Eastern Conference twice and the Supporters Shield once.
9 Hugo Sanchez
A prolific goalscorer, renowned worldwide for regularly scoring spectacular goals from any distance, Hugo Sanchez was voted the greatest player to ever emerge from the CONCACAF region. He is the third highest scorer in the history of the Spanish league, and spent his finest years at Real Madrid. He was La Liga's top scorer five times and a European Golden Boot winner once. He played in the U.S. briefly, both at the very start and very end of his career. He began playing indoor soccer with the San Diego Shockers in 1979, on loan from UNAM and returned to America 17 years later, when he joined the Dallas Burn, playing just a single campaign in the inaugural season of the MLS.
8 Lothar Matthaus
At club, international and individual level, Lothar Matthaus's list of honors is incredible. He won the Bundesliga seven times with Bayern Munich, adding a Serie A title when he moved to Inter Milan. He is the most capped German player of all time, with 150 appearances, he has played in five World Cups, more than any other outfield player and won the competition in 1990, as well as finishing as a runner-up in 1982 and 1986. Individually, he won the Ballon d'Or in 1990, was voted FIFA World Player of the Year in 1991 and was even given a Bavarian Order of Merit in 2001. Matthaus was 39 when he came to the U.S. in 2000, spending a season with the MetroStars, playing 16 games.
7 Gerd Muller
Another German, another World Cup winner and another Ballon d'Or winner. Like Matthaus, Gerd Muller's list of honors is spectacular. Commonly regarded as one of the greatest goalscorers in the history of the game, Muller was lethal, especially from close range. He was awarded the Golden Boot when West Germany won the World Cup in 1974, and was also the top scorer when his country won the European Championship in 1972. With Bayern Munich, he won all that was on offer, and was named Bundesliga top scorer for seven seasons. When he left Bayern, it was for America, joining the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1979. He spent three seasons in Florida, playing 71 times and scoring 38 goals.
6 George Best
'Maradona good, Pele better, George Best', is the tagline you will often hear immortalizing the greatness of the Northern Irish legend. Pele once said "George Best was the greatest player in the world." He had incredible pace, poise, dribbling ability and was adept when using both feet. Sadly, off the pitch, Best did not lead the life of an athlete. Perhaps if he had he would be remembered as the greatest player of all time. Best actually left Manchester United and retired at the age of 27 but soon returned to soccer, playing for almost 15 different teams, many based in the U.S. He played first for the Los Angeles Aztecs, then Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and finally the San Jose Earthquakes. In total, Best racked up around 150 appearances in the U.S, often dazzling spectators with his unique ability on the ball. He also played indoor soccer in America for the San Jose Earthquakes, scoring 33 goals in 21 games.
5 Bobby Moore
"Bobby Moore was the best defender in the history of the game," those are the words of Franz Beckenbauer, probably Moore's greatest rival to such a claim. A member of the World Team of the 20th Century, Moore was a classy defender, known for his impeccable reading of the game and ability both with and without the ball. He captained England and lifted the World Cup on home soil in 1966 and played a total of 108 games for his country. He played the majority of his club career with West Ham, before three years at Fulham and a short stint in both America and Denmark. Moore played for both San Antonio Thunder and the Seattle Sounders, making a total of 31 appearances in the U.S.
Born in Mozambique, Eusebio is regarded as one of the greatest soccer players to have ever lived. Powerful and immensely quick, Eusebio was a terrific athlete as well as being gifted on the ball. The Black Panther, as he was nicknamed, spent 15 years at Benfica, winning the league 11 times and the European Cup once. Internationally, he played for Portugal where he picked up the Golden Boot, scoring nine goals at the 1966 World Cup, inspiring Portugal to a semi-final. He won the Ballon d'Or in 1965 and was named the top scorer in Portugal on seven separate occasions. Eusebio played for the Boston Minutemen, Toronto Blizzard, Las Vegas Quicksilvers and the New Jersey Americans, during his time in the American leagues. Despite playing for four different teams, he only spent three years west of the Atlantic, playing around 60 games and scoring 22 goals.
3 Franz Beckenbauer
One of the most decorated men in the history of the game, I shan't bore you by reeling off all of Franz Beckenbauer's honors, but it's worth quickly recapping some. He won the Bundesliga, European Cup, World Cup, European Championships and the Ballon d'Or, some of which he won on multiple occasions. He essentially invented the 'libero' or sweeper role, and to this day no-one has played it with more style, elegance or effectiveness. He captained both Bayern Munich and West Germany from the age of 23 and won a second World Cup as manager of the German National Team.
Beckenbauer was still probably the best defender in the world when he came to the U.S, joining the New York Cosmos in 1977, where he spent three years before moving back to Germany and subsequently re-joining the Cosmos for another season in 1983. He played over 130 games for the Cosmos, winning the NASL three times.
2 Johan Cruyff
Narrowly edging out his great rival on many occasions, is the legend that is Johan Cruyff. Often ranked third, only to Maradona and Pele, few have influenced the game in the manner in which Johan Cruyff did. The 'Cruyff turn' is known throughout the game, and the brand of soccer known as 'Total Football' was largely inspired by Cruyff himself. With Ajax and Barcelona he won everything possible, but with the Netherlands his team fell at the final hurdle, losing in the 1974 World Cup final to arch-rivals Germany. He won the Ballon d'Or three times and was voted into the World Team of the 20th Century. In America, he played for both the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats, playing over 50 games in total.
It was not a particularly difficult choice selecting who should top this list, Pele is commonly regarded as the best player of all time. He was voted both World Player of the Century and FIFA Player of the Century, among a vast array of other lofty awards. As a player, he won three World Cups, and remains the only man to have done so. He spent 18 years at Santos, before embarking upon his American adventure, joining the New York Cosmos in a landmark transfer deal for American soccer in 1975. Pele spent two years with the Cosmos, scoring 31 goals in 56 games.