While MLS has recently become a haven for young South American prospects, the league’s ties with Europe remain as strong as ever.
In the past, the MLS has been seen by European players as a way to keep playing high-level football into their older years, as former stars like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa have crossed the pond.
However, MLS has also been used as a way for young European prospects to break out before a move to one of Europe’s top flight leagues.
Here, we’ll break down the 10 best moves from Europe to the MLS. All statistics are from TransferMarkt.
A former Premier League star, Chicharito enjoyed success in his first three seasons with Manchester United, scoring 50 goals in all competitions while helping United win the Premier League in 2010/11 and 2012/13. Although his production fell off from there, he still enjoyed playing time with Bayer Leverkusen, West Ham United, and Sevilla.
However, it was with the Mexican national team that Chicharito truly established his legacy. He has scored 52 goals in 109 caps, won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2011 while leading Mexico in scoring with seven goals, and played a key role in three World Cup teams in 2010, 2014 and 2018, falling in the Round of 16 each time. He retired from international duty in 2019 as Mexico’s all-time leading scorer.
Transferring to Los Angeles Galaxy in January 2020, Chicharito struggled to find his footing in MLS at first, scoring only two goals in 12 appearances. He had a renaissance year in 2021, though, with 17 goals in just 21 appearances, his best scoring campaign since 2015/16 with Bayer Leverkusen. Chicharito’s star is still rising in MLS as he looks to guide the Galaxy back to the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2022.
9. Wayne Rooney
Not many names loom larger over English football than Wayne Rooney. After making his debut with Everton at 17 years of age, Rooney spent 13 years at Manchester United, winning five league titles and the UEFA Champions League in 2007/08. He scored 253 goals in 559 appearances, becoming United’s all-time leading scorer, and also holds England’s goal-scoring record, with 53 goals in 120 caps.
After a brief reunion with Everton, Rooney transferred to DC United for one-and-a-half seasons. Rooney shared the load with DC’s young attackers, netting 25 goals in 52 appearances in all competitions, and provided great support as a veteran for DC players. Rooney guided DC United to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2018 and 2019, and while they were bounced in the first round both times, he succeeded in reenergising MLS’s most historic club after finishing bottom of the league in 2017.
8. Tim Howard
Arguably one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, Howard began his career in MLS with New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 1998. He made the move to England in July 2003, playing for Manchester United and Everton and making 490 appearances during his 13-year stay in the Premier League, 165 of those being clean sheets. While he was very successful as a Premier League ‘keeper, it was his time as the US national team’s net-minder that established him as one of the greats. Howard recorded 121 caps with the US, won two CONCACAF Gold Cups in 2007 and 2017, and started in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. His effort in the 2014 Round of 16 tie with Belgium is often regarded as one of the greatest goalkeeping performances of all time, despite the loss in extra time.
Howard returned to the MLS in 2016 to finish out his career for Colorado Rapids. In his first season back, he helped Rapids make the Western Conference Finals. Howard made 103 appearances in his four seasons back in America, tallying 126 saves and 25 clean sheets. No matter where he went, Howard was as reliable a net-minder as anyone, and he was able to remind Americans of that in his last four seasons of top-flight football.
7. Robbie Keane
Robbie Keane may not be the first name MLS fans think of when talking about impactful European transfers, but that shouldn’t diminish his legacy. Keane was an Irish international who cut his teeth in the Premier League racking up 349 appearances, most notably at Tottenham, Leeds and Liverpool. He scored 125 goals in the Premier League and helped Spurs win the 2008 League Cup.
Keane saw great success in his five seasons with LA Galaxy, teaming with David Beckham and Landon Donovan to create one of the most lethal attacking lines in MLS history. He helped Galaxy win three MLS Cups in 2011, 2012 and 2014, taking the Supporters’ Shield in 2011 as well. The 2014 season saw Keane make a name for himself, scoring 20 goals in 24 appearances after Beckham left for PSG. He won MLS MVP after that season and won his last MLS Cup. Keane left Galaxy after the 2016 season after accumulating 105 goals in 170 appearances.
6. Sebastian Giovinco
You can’t talk about big-name MLS strikers without mentioning Sebastian Giovinco. Giovinco played for Juventus from his youth, making his debut when the club was still in Serie B in 2007. After Juve won promotion that year, Giovinco enjoyed a long and successful career in Serie A, scoring 40 goals in 190 appearances for Juventus and Parma. Juventus won seven trophies while he was a player, including three Serie A titles, and he played under Antonio Conte and alongside Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Gianluigi Buffon.
Moving to MLS on a free transfer in February 2015 to Toronto FC, Giovinco enjoyed success from the very start. In his first season up north, he was the top scorer in MLS with 22 goals and won MLS MVP. The next season, Giovinco would lead Toronto to win both the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup, tallying 21 goals in 34 matches. Giovinco terrorised opposing defences in his four seasons in MLS and gained a reputation as one of the league’s premier attackers. He left Toronto FC in 2020 as the club’s all-time leading goal scorer.
5. David Beckham
What more needs to be said that hasn’t about the legendary David Beckham? Six time Premier League champion, member of the 1998/99 Champions League winning squad, 85 goals in 385 appearances for Manchester United, part of three England World Cup squads, the list goes on.
Beckham was a true international star long before coming to America, giving MLS its first big name and arguably drove more eyeballs to the American game than any player in league history. While his 20 goals in 124 appearances rank behind his teammates Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, Beckham served as an anchor in the midfield and contributed greatly to the Galaxy attack that won back-to-back MLS Cups in 2010 and 2011.
Beckham’s Galaxy sides also won Supporters’ Shield trophies in 2009 and 2010, further stamping their dominance during the timeframe.
Beckham left Galaxy after the 2013 season for PSG and after retiring that following summer, he began to engage with the MLS over owning his own club, and after years of speculation and build-up, Inter Miami CF debuted in 2020 with Beckham as team president. While he hasn’t seen the same level of success in the front office that he has as a player, Beckham continues to invest in the growth and future of MLS, a league that might be in a very different place without his presence.
4. Josef Martinez
While Martinez is most known for his successes at Atlanta United FC, many often forget that he played top-flight football in Europe prior to signing with Atlanta in March 2017. Martinez broke through as a regular starter for Torino in Serie A during the 2016 season, and during his time in Italy, scored 13 goals in 76 appearances. He became a starter for Venezuela during their 2018 World Cup qualifying run and now has 58 caps at the international level.
Martinez made an immediate impact as Atlanta’s starting striker in 2017, spearheading Tata Martino’s electric offence alongside Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba and helping Atlanta become one of the most popular and successful clubs in MLS. Martinez won MLS MVP and MLS All-Star Game MVP honours in 2018 while setting the single season scoring record at the time with 31 goals in 34 appearances. That same year, Martinez helped Atlanta win MLS Cup in just their second season as a club, scoring the goal that put them in the lead in the MLS Cup Final against Portland. Martinez and Atlanta followed that up with two trophies in 2019: the US Open Cup against Minnesota United FC and the Campeones Cup against Club America.
In his five seasons with Atlanta, Martinez has scored 102 goals in 132 appearances across all competitions. He has never missed the MLS Cup Playoffs as an active player on the roster and has the most goals scored of any active MLS player with 89. After tearing his ACL in February 2020, Martinez has had limited production (by his standards) since his return, but remains the highest-valued player in MLS at £11.5M. While some players may be keen to make the jump to Europe with that valuation, Martinez has vocalised his desire to stay in Atlanta long-term and the fans have embraced him in return, with regular chants during games to build a statue for him outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Now that’s an impactful statement for an impactful signing.
3. Landon Donovan
USA football and Landon Donovan are practically synonymous at this point. However, many fans don’t know that he actually started his playing career in the Bundesliga for Bayer Leverkusen in 2000.
Donovan also gained experience in top-flight European football through loan spells with Bayern Munich in 2009 and Everton in 2010 and 2012. In total, he made 38 appearances in Europe.
Of course, Donovan’s career in America is what he’s best known for. After getting a taste of MLS while Leverkusen loaned him to San Jose Earthquakes from 2001 to 2004, Donovan joined Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005 and enjoyed 11 seasons with the club. Donovan was the driving force behind Galaxy becoming the biggest and most successful club in America, adding four MLS Cups to the two he won at San Jose, along with winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2010 and 2011 and the 2005 US Open Cup. Donovan led the league in scoring in 2008 with 20 goals and won MLS MVP the following season, which would be renamed the Landon Donovan Trophy upon his retirement.
In addition to his 315 appearances with Los Angeles, Donovan recorded the second most caps in US history with 157, and his 57 goals are tied with longtime national teammate Clint Dempsey for most all-time. He was a member of three World Cup squads and brought home four CONCACAF Gold Cups, leading the Gold Cup in scoring in 2003, 2005 and 2013. He retired from the national team in 2014 after setting the standard for the next generation of US national team players, while leaving a colossal imprint on MLS as well.
2. David Villa
Not too many names are so tied with Spanish football as David Villa. A Spain international who played 11 seasons in LaLiga, Villa made 473 appearances across all competitions for FC Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Real Zaragoza. He won 12 trophies during his time in Spain, with his most success coming at Barcelona, where he won the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League as well as LaLiga titles in 2010/11 and 2012/13 and the Copa del Rey in 2011/12. During that span, Villa was also a key part in Spain’s national team dominance, winning the Golden Boot in two major trophy winning teams, with four goals at UEFA Euro 2008 and five goals during Spain’s legendary FIFA World Cup win in 2010.
Once Villa’s contract expired in 2014, he left on a free transfer to MLS expansion side New York City FC as the Manchester City owned side looked to make a splash prior to their inaugural season at Yankee Stadium. And what a splash it was. Villa made 126 appearances across all competitions and was regularly one of the league’s top goal scorers, netting 80 goals as NYCFC’s primary centre forward and winning MLS MVP in 2016 behind a 23-goal campaign.
While Villa was clearly a star player in America, NYCFC as a club never broke through in the title race. Villa led his club to three straight MLS Cup Playoff appearances in 2016-2018, but were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals each year. NYCFC never won a single trophy during Villa’s stint. However, Villa’s individual honours cemented his spot as a legend in the MLS, and he left NYCFC after the 2019 season for Vissel Kobe in Japan. After retiring in 2020, Villa became an owner of a USL Championship expansion side in Queens, New York called Queensboro FC slated to debut in 2023, showing his continued love and dedication to the New York City area.
1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
It’s hard to think of a player with a more seismic impact upon arrival in the MLS than when Zlatan left Manchester United for Los Angeles Galaxy in 2018. Having fallen out of favour with Jose Mourinho after a successful career at marquee clubs such as PSG, FC Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan, the Swedish striker’s larger than life personality and knack for finding the back of the net made him an instant star on one of the biggest football cities in America. From taking out a full page ad in the Los Angeles Times announcing his arrival to legendary late night talk show appearances, Zlatan gave MLS a jolt of star power during a key period of growth for the league. His MLS debut is still one of the most talked about performances in league history, where in front of a national audience and in the first showdown with cross-town rivals LAFC, Zlatan netted two goals in 19 minutes as a sub, including a screamer from 38 yards out that still stands out as one of the best goals in MLS history.
In just two seasons in the MLS, Zlatan scored 53 goals and took a Galaxy side that was last in MLS in 2017 before his arrival and made the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2019 after a 30-goal season, second only to LAFC forward and MLS MVP Carlos Vela’s record setting 34-goal campaign.
While the Galaxy would exit in the Western Conference Semifinals that year against LAFC—and Zlatan would exit shortly after when his contract expired—his impact on the league can be measured in more than just two trophyless campaigns. Zlatan commanded attention to the MLS in a way few players ever have. He brought a swagger and identity to LA Galaxy at a time when they were struggling to find out who they were post-Landon Donovan. And Zlatan even redeemed himself after a tumultuous time at Old Trafford marked by injury and bench stints, reestablishing himself as an elite striker even after a torn ACL and leveraging his American success into a successful return to AC Milan, top flight European soccer, and the UEFA Champions League in 2020.
Written by Andrew Simonson