Best Foreign Players in Major League Soccer

Lionel Messi

With Lionel Messi now two months into his spell with Inter Miami, club fans will expect big things from the Argentinian World Cup winner. He’s already helped Inter to claim their first-ever trophy, and it’s hoped that he can stay around and inspire the franchise to become regulars in the MLS postseason.

Whether Messi will go on to become one of Major League Soccer’s best-ever imports is debatable. Since the competition was founded in the 1990s, some exceptional overseas players have existed. Here is a list of some of the greatest.

1. David Beckham: LA Galaxy

David Beckham
Image Credit: Photo Works/Shutterstock.

Outside of the US, there is a perception that some footballers head to MLS at the end of their careers. The intention is to grab one last big payday before they retire. That wasn’t the case with David Beckham, who was 32 when he joined LA Galaxy from Real Madrid.

The attacking midfielder had more to give to the game, and he spent the next five years with Galaxy, helping the team to MLS Cup wins in 2011 and 2012. This was a golden era for the team, who also won the Supporters Shield in 2010 and 2011, with David Beckham playing a pivotal role.

2. Bradley Wright-Phillips: New York Red Bulls

Bradley Wright Phillips
Image Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.

Unlike his compatriot David Beckham, Bradley Wright-Phillips struggled to make a mark on English football. That’s why New York Red Bulls fans may have been underwhelmed when the striker joined them from Charlton Athletic in 2013.

Wright-Phillips thrived in Major League Soccer and went on to become one of the most prolific players in the competition. He won the Golden Boot twice and is still the Red Bulls' all-time leading scorer. 

3. David Villa: New York City FC

David Villa
Image Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.

Strikers get all the glory, and it’s no surprise that the best overseas players tend to be frontmen. MLS franchise team owners know that a prolific attacker can make all the difference to their roster.

Spanish World Cup winner David Villa joined New York City FC from Atletico Madrid in 2015, and he would also finish his MLS career as his club’s all-time leading scorer. In just 126 matches for NYC, the striker scored 80 times.

He couldn’t quite push his team on to win silverware, but David Villa was another player to give 100% during his time in Major League Soccer.

4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic: LA Galaxy

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Image Credit: Betto Rodrigues/Shutterstock.

Evergreen Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic spent just two seasons with Galaxy, but fans of the franchise will always remember those campaigns. In 58 games for the club, Zlatan scored no fewer than 53 goals.

Ibrahimovic has maintained a high-scoring ratio at his many clubs, but 2018 and 2019 were personal highlights. LA Galaxy failed to land significant honors in those two seasons, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic can still be considered one of the league’s greatest-ever imports. 

5. Bastian Schweinsteiger: Chicago Fire

Bastian Schweinsteiger
Image Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.

Germany’s 2014 World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger spent the final years of his career with Chicago Fire, but he certainly didn’t coast. He gave everything on the pitch in three seasons that produced 92 appearances for the franchise.

The midfielder is widely regarded as one of the best foreign imports and is credited with inspiring his teammates and bringing a more professional approach to the Chicago Fire setup.

6. Robbie Keane: LA Galaxy

Robbie Keane
Image Credit: Photo Works/Shutterstock.

While David Beckham earned most of the headlines during his time with LA Galaxy, Robbie Keane tended to go under the radar. The Republic of Ireland international spent six seasons in MLS between 2011 and 2016, and his goals were as crucial as Beckham’s delivery.

Keane won three MLS Cup medals and a Supporters Shield during his time in LA, and he made vital contributions to those successes. 104 goals in 165 games puts him in second place in Galaxy’s all-time scorers list, behind the long-serving Landon Donovan.

7. Gareth Bale: Los Angeles FC

Gareth Bale
Image Credit: Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock.

While he won the most important piece of silverware in Major League Soccer, Gareth Bale’s spell in the league may be too brief to make a judgment. He did win both domestic medals during his spell with LAFC, and he also scored a vital goal in the MLS Cup final.

He’ll be remembered as a hero to the team’s fans, but do three goals in 13 games make Gareth Bale one of the best overseas players in Major League Soccer history?

8. Lionel Messi: Inter Miami

Lionel Messi
Image Credit: Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock.

The jury also remains out in terms of Lionel Messi. After many years with Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, it’s difficult to argue against the theory that he’s the best and most famous player to ever come to the US.

However, it’s too early to make a call on his contributions to MLS. His early performances for Inter Miami have shown glimpses of his finest form, and there is great promise. All the time, there is talk of a return to Barcelona, so we may not see Lionel Messi enjoy an extended stay here.

9. Gonzalo Higuain: Inter Miami

Gonzalo Higuain
Image Credit: Inter Miami CF.

Many will regard Argentine international Gonzalo Higuain as one of the biggest overseas disappointments. It’s true to say that he struggled in his earlier performances, but his scoring record in MLS improved over time.

In his final season with Inter Miami, Higuain scored a respectable 16 goals in 28 league games. That return improved his overall ratio, but age caught up with the striker, and he retired in 2022.

Many others could have made the cut. Wayne Rooney, Kaka, and Andrea Pirlo are among the best players in world football. All made appearances in Major League Soccer towards the end of their careers, but they couldn’t quite make the same impact as the names on this list.

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Matt is a journalist who began his career writing for print media in the 1990s. After filing cricket reports for local newspapers, he contributed to many periodicals in the spheres of sport, collecting, and food and drink. Having attended hundreds of concerts and sporting events, he now focuses on music as well as sport, and is happy to have lasted through to the digital age.