Since its creation, Major League Soccer has been a late-career destination for some of Europe and the world’s biggest soccer stars. In the early days of the league, players such as Carlos Valderrama, Lothar Matthäus, and Hristo Stoichkov pulled on the kits of the newly formed American teams.
The tradition continued when David Beckham landed in Los Angeles. Beckham’s arrival brought about changes for the league that allowed clubs to spend additional money outside of the salary cap to attract more prominent names to the competition.
The “Beckham Rule”, or the Designated Player as it’s referred in the league, has consistently brought big names to Major League Soccer since its adoption in 2007. Some of those players have come with the intent of proving themselves in a new league. Some have come to collect a paycheck and enjoy the “American experience.”
This list examines some of the players who have played in Major League Soccer since the Designated Player rule was created. The list is not exclusive to those on Designated Player contracts, but bigger-name players who once played at some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
David Beckham – 2007-2012, 6 seasons, LA Galaxy
There’s nowhere else to start but with the man who made it all happen. Becks turned the footballing world upside down in 2007 when he announced he would be leaving Real Madrid for the Los Angeles Galaxy where he would go on to spend 6 seasons.
It wouldn’t be all fairytales in Hollywood though as Beckham struggled through his first season with consistent injuries. He would end up delivering the goods though, winning two MLS Cups, in 2011 and 2012.
Beckham’s time in Los Angeles was marked by good play on the field, but bigger returns for the front office. His jersey was sold more than any other during that time, and he boosted Galaxy attendance wherever they played.
Zlatan Ibrahimović – 2018-2019, 2 seasons, LA Galaxy
Zlatan Ibrahimović entered Major League Soccer with a bang. He scored two goals in his debut match off the bench against crosstown rivals, Los Angeles Football Club. After the performance, the big Swede was quoted as saying, ‘I heard the crowd saying “We want Zlatan”, so I gave them Zlatan.’
He would continue to give them Zlatan over the next two seasons. Ibra would score 53 times in 58 matches for the Galaxy, setting the single-season goal-scoring record for the club in 2019 with 30. The striker was unable to bring any trophies to Los Angeles though. He left the Galaxy after two seasons to rejoin Italian club, A.C. Milan.
Robbie Keane – 2011-2016, 6 seasons, LA Galaxy
Robbie Keane’s first season in MLS wasn’t a long one, but it had the intended impact. He joined in August, towards the tail end of the MLS campaign. However, Keane was able to contribute to his team’s MLS Cup run, scoring 4 times in 11 matches and the Galaxy lifted the MLS Cup.
Keane would go on to form a strong partnership with Landon Donovan as the pair would win MLS Cup in 2012 and 2014. Keano would score 104 times in 165 competitive matches for the Galaxy and left LA as the club’s second all-time leading goalscorer.
David Villa – 2015-2018, 4 seasons, New York City FC
Calling the new MLS club “an irresistible project”, Villa announced he would be joining expansion side New York City Football Club in 2014. He wasn’t the club’s first player, but he would be their captain and most valuable player during the time he was in the “Big Apple.”
Villa scored 80 times in 126 competitive matches for NYCFC. During those 4 seasons, he was named in the MLS Best XI twice and picked up the 2016 MLS MVP Award. City made the playoffs in three of Villa’s four seasons in the league but never managed to make the MLS Cup Final.
Wayne Rooney – 2018-2019, 2 seasons, D.C. United
The former Manchester United man joined D.C. United at a crucial time for the franchise. The club was moving into a new stadium and needed a star on the roster to help fill the newly installed seats. Enter Wayne Rooney.
The impact was immediate. Rooney gave United the lift they needed, and after just 3 matches he was named club captain. He gained international notice with his incredible last-ditch tackle and assist for the game-winning goal against Orlando City.
Rooney led D.C. to the playoffs in both of his seasons, but the club was knocked out in the first round on both occasions. Rooney scored 23 goals in 48 games for D.C. United.
Didier Drogba – 2015-2016, 2 seasons, Montreal Impact
Didier Drogba joined the Impact midway through the 2015 season and while his time in MLS was short, it was proof that age is just a number when you have the levels of class that Drogba has. He played just a season and a half in Quebec, but he scored 23 times in 41 competitive matches.
After scoring 11 in 11 during his first season, he was named a finalist in the 2015 MLS Newcomer of the Year Award. Drogba helped lead the Impact to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, where they lost to Toronto FC. After lingering back issues limited his role with the team in 2016, Drogba decided it was time to move on.
Tim Cahill – 2012-2014, 3 seasons, New York Red Bulls
While in MLS, the Aussie scored 16 times in 72 competitive matches for New York. Cahill’s time with the Red Bulls overlapped with Thierry Henry’s and the two formed an impressive partnership during those years.
Cahill’s best season in the league came in 2013 when he led the Red Bulls in goals, with 11 and added 5 assists. He was named an MLS All-Star and was a MLS Best XI selection.
During Cahill’s three seasons, the Red Bulls won a Supporters Shield, given to the club with the most points at the conclusion of the regular season. However, they were unable to get past the Eastern Conference Finals in the playoffs.
Obafemi Martins – 2013-2015, 3 seasons, Seattle Sounders
The former Inter Milan and Newcastle forward entered Major League soccer with much less fanfare than the other men on this list. However, he left MLS as one of the greatest ever Designated Players.
His impact was incredible right off the bat. Among his 11 goals in his first season were 5 match-winners. His second season was one of the greatest the Emerald City has ever seen. He scored 17 goals and added 13 assists, ending the season as the runner up for the MLS MVP Award. Martins finished his MLS career with 43 goals in 83 competitive matches.
Thierry Henry – 2010-2014, 5 seasons, New York Red Bulls
Henry joined the New York Red Bulls midway through the 2010 season. The Arsenal legend scored 52 times in 135 competitive matches. In four and a half seasons, Henry was named to the MLS Best XI side twice and was named in the MLS All-Star team four times as well.
Henry was unable to help the club lift any silverware, however, the team did pick up the MLS Supporters Shield in 2013 after edging out Columbus Crew for the most points in the league.
Despite criticizing his Red Bulls teammates for not being good enough during his playing career, Henry returned to Major League Soccer in 2020. This time he has returned to jumpstart his managerial career with the Montreal Impact.
Carlos Vela – 2018-Present, 2+ seasons, Los Angeles Football Club
In just over two seasons, Carlos Vela has already managed to make himself one of the greatest Designated Players of all-time. He is even creeping into discussions for the greatest Major League Soccer player of all-time.
Vela joined the expansion club at its birth in 2018 and has been their star ever since. The former Arsenal and Real Sociedad man has taken the league by storm, scoring 50 goals in just 61 matches. He was named the MLS MVP in 2019 after he scored a league-record 34 goals and added 15 assists.
Andrea Pirlo – 2015-2017, 3 seasons, New York City Football Club
When Andrea Pirlo signed for NYCFC in the summer of 2015, he became the highest-paid Italian player in the world. It seemed worth it for a brand-new club to have one of the greatest midfielders in the world in their lineup. Heck, Pirlo would be nominated for the FIFPRO World XI later that season.
Unfortunately for NYCFC fans that would be for his play at Juventus before joining the MLS club. Pirlo’s time in MLS was marked by injuries and an incredibly low work-rate. He retired after the 2017 season having scored 1 goal and recording 18 assists in 60 matches.
Unfortunately, one of the world’s greatest playmakers time in MLS was highlighted by one incredibly poor moment of defending.
Steven Gerrard – 2015-2016, 2 seasons, LA Galaxy
The man from the cold, misty banks of the river Mersey took his talents to the sunny, sandy beaches of Los Angeles midway through the 2015 MLS season. Gerrard was given an 18-month contract worth $9 million a year.
Alas, Gerrard wouldn’t lift a league trophy in America either as the Galaxy were bounced out of the playoffs early in both of Gerrard’s seasons with the club.
Gerrard was physically unable to cope with the difficulties of playing in the United States, which includes long flights for away matches, and diverse weather conditions throughout the large country. Gerrard played in just 34 games and scored only 5 goals. He retired from football after the conclusion of the 2016 MLS season.
Frank Lampard – 2015-2016, 2 seasons, New York City Football Club
Frank Lampard was one part of the iconic trio that NYCFC signed to begin their inaugural season. The three were supposed to lead the team to the playoffs, and maybe more, in their first season. It didn’t happen.
Lampard joined the club in July and struggled. Hampered by injuries, Lampard played in just 10 matches, scoring 3 times as NYCFC finished far off the playoff spots.
In his second, and final season in America, Lampard was better. He scored 12 goals in 19 matches, but his impact was again limited by injuries. In his lone MLS highlight, Lampard became the first NYCFC player to record a hat-trick when he put three past the Colorado Rapids.
New York City did manage to make the playoffs in his second season but were eliminated in the second round. Lampard left City at the end of the 2016 season playing in just 29 games.
Kaka – 2015-2017, 3 seasons, Orlando City SC
The former world player of the year joined Orlando City for their inaugural season in Major League Soccer. His contract made him the highest-paid player in the league. For that, and a player of his quality, Orlando were expecting to get a player who would dominate a league that was of less quality than his previous leagues, Serie A and La Liga.
In 3 MLS seasons, Kaka managed to put up some good individual numbers. Kaka recorded 24 goals and 22 assists in 75 matches. Not bad. However, he was unable to turn those goals and assists into wins for Orlando City. The club finished no higher than 14th out of 22 teams during his time captaining the side.
Freddie Ljungberg – 2009-2010, 2 seasons, Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire
The former Arsenal legend joined the Seattle Sounders for their inaugural season in Major League Soccer. Ljungberg spent an unremarkable season and a half in the Pacific Northwest before being traded halfway through his second MLS season to the Chicago Fire.
The Swede struggled with injuries and migraines throughout his time in the league. He played in 52 games, scoring 4 goals and adding 19 assists. This was just the beginning of a late-career footballing odyssey that would also take him to Japan, Scotland, and India.
Jermaine Defoe – 2014, 1 season, Toronto FC
Given the amount of work involved in bringing Defoe to Toronto, fans should be justified in their disappointment in his time in Canada. Like all things Toronto, the rapper Drake was involved, and the deal included a massive commercial agreement between Toronto FC and Tottenham.
Defoe was good in Toronto, scoring 11 goals in 19 matches, but he lasted just one season of the 4-year deal he signed when joining the club. He returned to England the following January with Premier League club Sunderland.
On the plus side, the deal with Sunderland saw American striker Jozy Altidore sent to Toronto. Altidore would eventually lead the Canadian club to its first MLS Cup trophy in 2017.
Rafael Marquez – 2010-2012, 3 seasons, New York Red Bulls
Rafael Marquez joined New York Red Bulls after being released by Barcelona. A leader at the back from one of the world’s best clubs seemed like a no brainer right? As it turns out, the deal ended with both parties feeling regret.
Marquez was consistently injured, suspended or playing poorly. He played in just 44 of a possible 98 games in three seasons. Ever the model citizen, Marquez publicly called out teammates, started fights with opposing teams, and was very well remunerated for it – costing the club $4.6 million per year.
After his time in the league ended Marquez bolted for Mexico and called his move to MLS the worst decision he’d ever made in his career.
Denilson – 2007, 1 season, FC Dallas
Well, it wasn’t even really one season. The former São Paolo and Betis man joined FC Dallas near the end of August 2007 and played in just 8 games for the club. Denilson was once the world’s most expensive player, but that didn’t matter in Dallas.
FC Dallas head coach said of Denilson, the player would need to “earn a spot in the lineup like everybody else.” Apparently, that didn’t sit well with the World Cup winner.
After refusing to renegotiate his salary, Denilson was let go by the club and the two parted ways. This ended the shortest Designated Player career in MLS history.
Mikaël Silvestre – 2013, 1 season, Portland Timbers
The former Manchester United and France defender went on trial with the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders ahead of the 2013 MLS season and eventually signed with Portland. Who wouldn’t want an experienced defender of that pedigree on their roster?
It wouldn’t happen as either party planned it though. After just 8 matches, Silvestre tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Silvestre remained around the team during the season as the Timbers finished in first place in the Western Conference but was released in the offseason.
Torsten Frings – 2011-2012, 2 seasons, Toronto FC
Frings took his first job outside of Germany when he moved to Toronto on a Designated Player contract. He played well in his first half-season in Canada, starting in all 13 matches he played, even helping the club lift the Canadian Championship.
Unfortunately for Frings, his age and injuries caught up with him in North America. In the latter stages of the 2013 season, Frings sustained a hip injury that required surgery. When the recovery progressed slower than expected, Frings decided to retire, having played a grand total of 33 matches for Toronto FC.