Major League Soccer’s 20th season kicks off Friday when the Chicago Fire take on the champion Los Angeles Galaxy in Carson, Calif. With America's top-flight competition on the cusp of its third decade, here are our picks for the 20 greatest players to have played in MLS.
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20. Donovan Ricketts
One of the most talented goalkeepers to don an MLS jersey, Ricketts has been named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year twice. The Jamaican national has played for three MLS clubs and won the MLS Cup with the L.A. Galaxy. Expansion side Orlando City SC signed him for its inaugural season.
Having already played for iconic English clubs Everton and Portsmouth, the Serbian-born midfielder (whose real name is Predrag Radosavljevic) made an immediate impact on MLS when he joined the Kansas City Wizards in 1996. An MLS Cup winner with Kansas City and a two-time league MVP (1997, 2003), Preki scored 79 goals and made 112 assists over the course of 242 league appearances.
18. Mauricio Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos had already carved out a respectable career in Mexico and El Salvador by the time he joined MLS in its inaugural season. During eight years with the Galaxy, the Salvadoran midfielder established himself as one of the best playmakers in the league. He won the MLS Cup in 2002 and was an MLS All-Star seven times.
17. Robin Fraser
Selected by the Galaxy as the fourth overall pick in the 1996 MLS Inaugural Player Draft, the defender played five seasons in L.A. and was named Defender of the Year in 1999. A transfer to Colorado Rapids saw the Jamaican-born U.S. international win a second Defender of the Year honor (2004) and the 2009 MLS Cup.
16. Piotr Nowak
A veteran of German Bundesliga outfits like Dynamo Dresden and FC Kaiserslautern, the Polish midfielder joined Chicago Fire in 1998. In his four years with the club, he won the 1998 MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cups.
15. Eddie Pope
Chosen by D.C. United in the first round of the MLS College Draft in 1996, the defender spent 12 years in MLS, representing United, MetroStars and Real Salt Lake. Before retiring in 2007, the former U.S. international made the MLS Best XI four times and won MLS Defender of the Year once in 1997.
14. Brad Davis
A six-time MLS All-Star, Davis began his MLS career with the MetroStars in 2002. After a couple of seasons in Dallas and one with the San Jose Earthquakes, the U.S. international joined Houston Dynamo in 2006 and went on to win two MLS Cups.
13. Carlos Ruiz
In his debut MLS season, the Guatemalan striker scored 24 goals to win the Golden Boot and led the L.A. Galaxy to the 2002 MLS Cup. Subsequent transfers to FC Dallas, Toronto FC, back to the Galaxy and Philadelphia Union never saw Ruiz equal his first season’s success. But a bicycle kick he scored against D.C. United in 2006 was voted MLS’s Goal of the Decade.
12. Omar Gonzalez
Named MLS Rookie of the Year in 2009, Gonzalez ushered in a new era of dominance in L.A. by winning three MLS Cups. The U.S. international has the distinction of being the first defender named as a designated player by the Galaxy.
11. Taylor Twellman
A lethal striker, Twellman scored 101 goals during an eight-year career with the New England Revolution, placing him fifth on the all-time MLS scoring charts. In 2009, Twellman's career was cut short by a relapse of a concussion he’d suffered a year earlier. He now enjoys a successful career as an analyst.
10. Cobi Jones
After brief stints in England and Brazil, the U.S. international joined the Galaxy for the inaugural MLS season in 1996. “He was kind of the league’s first superstar,” said veteran striker Alan Gordon, who played with Jones on the Galaxy. “For a young guy like me to be playing with Cobi Jones, who’d been in World Cups and played at international level, it was special.” Jones won two MLS Cups with Galaxy and served as interim manager for the club in 2008.
9. Carlos Valderrama
Known for his tangled mop of unruly blonde hair, the Colombian playmaker was already an international star when he joined Tampa Bay Mutiny for the inaugural MLS season. An MLS MVP and Supporters’ Shield winner in his first season, Valderrama set a single-season record with 26 assists in 2000, a mark that still stands today.
8. David Beckham
While it took a couple seasons to separate the player from the hype, Beckham’s influence on MLS is undeniable. “I think he was the turning point in this whole thing,” Gordon said. “He changed the brand and gave us global credibility.” Beckham’s celebrity status lent star power to a league that badly needed it at the time, and his on-field contribution helped L.A. Galaxy to two MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shields.
7. Jeff Cunningham
With 134 goals in 14 seasons, the Jamaican-born striker is second only to Landon Donovan when it comes to regular-season goals in MLS. A Golden Boot winner in 2006 and 2009, Cunningham led the Columbus Crew to the U.S. Open Cup in 2002 and the Supporters’ Shield in 2004.
6. Thierry Henry
The France and Arsenal legend was arguably the most talented – and certainly the most decorated – player ever to ply his trade in MLS. Henry spent five seasons with New York Red Bulls, winning the Eastern Conference twice and the 2013 MLS Supporters’ Shield. Along the way, he scored 51 goals and registered 42 assists.
5. Robbie Keane
A veteran of the English Premier League and Serie A by the time he signed for L.A. Galaxy in 2011, Keane is among the greatest strikers to have ever played in MLS. "There’s been a number of good players in that position, but certainly in every discussion, Robbie’s name would come up," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. Having won three MLS Cups in four seasons in L.A. and been named league MVP for 2014, Keane, who is Ireland’s all-time leading scorer, may not yet be done leaving his mark.
4. Dwayne De Rosario
An attacking midfielder whose 16-year career spanned five clubs, "DeRo" scored 101 goals and registered 77 assists in MLS. Canada’s all-time leading goal scorer also won four MLS Cups and was named league MVP in 2011.
3. Jaime Moreno
The Bolivian midfielder joined D.C. United in 1996 from Premier League side Middlesbrough. He won the Golden Boot in his second season with 16 goals. A subsequent transfer to New York MetroStars was less successful, but upon returning to United he regained his form and eventually became the first player in MLS to score 100-plus goals and notch 100 assists.
2. Marco Etcheverry
Regarded as perhaps the best midfielder ever to play in MLS, Etcheverry signed with D.C. United in the league’s debut season in 1996. Instrumental in leading United to three out of the first four MLS Cups, the Bolivian scored 34 goals and notched 101 assists in 191 games, earning league MVP in 1998 and a spot in the MLS All-Time Best XI in 2005.
1. Landon Donovan
Donovan was so influential to MLS that the league MVP award was renamed after him. “He was the face of this league and he went out on a fairytale ending,” said Galaxy striker Gyasi Zardes about his former teammate. “I remember taking a picture with him when I was like 16, I had braids.” With six MLS Cups to his name, the Galaxy and USMNT legend retired in 2014 as the league’s all-time leading scorer and assist-giver.