MLS has proved to be a hotbed for emerging Hispanic and Latino talent over the last few years -- so much so that even the league’s official website published a piece in early 2023 titled “Eight players in South America MLS teams should scout.”

So far, this has been a mostly symbiotic relationship. Some players of Hispanic descent have gone to MLS and later earned big money by moving to Europe. One example is Newcastle midfielder Miguel Almiron. Other Latino stars, including Leo Messi, have started their careers in Europe, only to see their international profile reach new heights in North America.

To honor National Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s look back at some of the greatest and most influential Hispanic and Latino players in MLS history.

Who was the first Hispanic MLS player?

MLS began play in 1996, and there were some immediate star performances by Latino players. Among those notables were Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama and Bolivian midfielder Marco Etcheverry. 

Current Hispanic MLS Players

There are many Hispanic MLS players in 2023. Some of the most notable names are Lionel Messi, Thiago Almada, Josef Martinez, Carlos Vela, and Facundo Torres.

What percentage of MLS players are Hispanic?

According to Statista, 31.6 percent of MLS players in 2021 were either Hispanic or Latino.

Famous Hispanic Soccer Players

Who are some of the more famous Hispanic soccer players? Historically, those answers include Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Carlos Valderrama, James Rodriguez, and many more. Two of the players just mentioned here have or are currently playing in MLS, and another (Suarez) has been heavily linked to the league.

Celebrating the Top 10 Most Influential Hispanic Soccer Players in MLS history

  1. Omar Gonzalez

Position: Center back
Nationality: USA (dual citizen of Mexico)
Years in MLS: 2009 to 2015, 2019 to present
MLS Teams: LA Galaxy, Toronto FC, New England Revolution
Awards and Honors: MLS Cup Champion (2011, 2012, 2014), MLS Defender of the Year (2011), MLS Best XI (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014)

This list needed at least one defender, and American CB Omar Gonzalez is one of the best in MLS history. Gonzalez won the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year as part of a solid LA Galaxy defense that won the 2011 MLS Cup. The club would win again with Gonzalez at the back in both 2012 and 2014.

Gonzalez was a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year on three other occasions and was also a four-time selection to the MLS Best XI.

The U.S.-born son of Mexican parents, Gonzalez is a dual citizen of both the United States and Mexico. He chose to represent the USMNT at the international level and was capped 52 times, highlighted by a trip to the 2014 World Cup.

  1. Diego Valeri

Position: Attacking midfielder
Nationality: Argentina
Years in MLS: 2013 to 2021
MLS Team: Portland Timbers
Awards and Honors: MLS Cup Champion (2015), MLS is Back Tournament Champion (2020), MLS MVP (2017), MLS Best XI (2013, 2014, 2017), MLS All-Star (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018) 

While Lionel Messi is certainly the Argentinian who has made the biggest “splash” in recent MLS history, Diego Valeri is the one who set the league standard for his countrymen. The 2017 MLS MVP recorded 30 goal involvements that season, including 21 goals. In all, he totaled 86 goals and 65 assists in 262 games with the Portland Timbers.

Valeri originally joined MLS on loan from his boyhood club, Lanus. He was a one-club man in MLS, representing Portland well, and has the most goals in Timbers history. His signature moment came in 2015 when he scored the fastest goal in MLS Cup history just 27 seconds into a match.

  1. Nick Rimando

Position: Goalkeeper
Nationality: USA
Years in MLS: 2000 to 2019
MLS Teams: Miami Fusion, DC United, Real Salt Lake
Awards and Honors: MLS Cup Champion (2004), MLS All-Star (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2019), MLS Save of the Year (2012, 2013, 2019), MLS 400 Games Club (achieved in 2016)

The American son of a Mexican mother, former USMNT player Nick Rimando might be the greatest MLS goalkeeper of all time. Rimando has the most appearances of any player in MLS History, and he earned six trips to the MLS All-Star Game during his 20 seasons in the league.

Also eligible to represent the Mexico’s national team, Rimando chose to play for the United States, He earned 22 caps and was stuck behind GK Tim Howard for most of his career, although he did enough to earn a spot on the 2014 World Cup roster.

  1. David Villa

Position: Striker
Nationality: Spain
Years in MLS: 2015 to 2018
Awards and Honors: MLS MVP (2016), MLS Best XI (2016, 2017), MLS All-Star (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) 

Yet another MLS MVP winner, Spanish striker David Villa announced that he would join NYCFC a year before the club played a competitive match. He was the club’s first-ever captain for its inaugural 2015 season and was the league’s MVP just a year later, leading NYCFC to its first playoff appearance.

Villa is NYCFC’s all-time leading goal-scorer, having tallied 80 in just four seasons. Perhaps his greatest MLS accomplishment was earning a recall back to the Spanish national team in 2017 after not having been part of the team for three years.

  1. Josef Martinez

Position: Striker
Nationality: Venezuela
Years in MLS: 2017 to present
MLS Teams: Atlanta United, Inter Miami

Awards and Honors: MLS Cup Champion (2018), Leagues Cup Champion (2023), MLS MVP (2018), MLS Best XI (2017, 2018, 2019), MLS Cup MVP (2018), MLS All-Star (2018, 2019), MLS Golden Boot (2018) 

Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez broke the MLS single-season goals record in 2018. Roy Lassiter had originally established the mark with 27 goals back in 1996, but Martinez’s 31 were enough to easily surpass Lassiter and help lead Atlanta United to its first MLS Cup victory, He was also named the MVP of both the MLS regular season and the MLS Cup playoffs.

Martinez is one of just 13 MLS players to score 100 career goals, and one of only two MLS Hispanic players to have accomplished that feat. His 0.67 goals per-game ratio is the highest of the top 13 career goal-scorers.

Now 30 years old, Marinez showed that he has plenty left in the tank by contributing to Inter Miami’s surprising 2023 Leagues Cup triumph.

  1. Carlos Vela

Positions: Forward, Winger
Nationality: Mexico
Years in MLS: 2018 to present
MLS Team: Los Angeles FC
Awards and Honors: MLS Cup Champion (2022), MLS MVP (2019), MLS Best XI (2018, 2019, 2022), MLS All-Star (2018, 2019, 2022), MLS Golden Boot (2019) 

Josef Martinez’s 2018 all-time MLS single-season record of 31 goals lasted just one season. Why? Because Mexican forward Carlos Vela exploded for 34 goals in just 31 games of the 2019 campaign to set a record that earned him both the 2019 MLS MVP and Golden Boot awards.

Vela has tallied an impressive 78 goals in 145 games for LAFC. Despite having to share some goal-scoring responsibilities with newcomer Cristian Arango, Vela finally won the MLS Cup in 2022 -- a reward for his stellar MLS career.

In 2023, Vela has teamed up with Gabonese goal-scorer Denis Bouanga to keep LAFC near the top of the MLS standings.

  1. Lionel Messi

Positions: Forwards, Attacking midfielder
Nationality: Argentina
Years in MLS: 2023 to present
MLS Team: Inter Miami
Awards and Honors: Leagues Cup Champion (2023) 

Has Lionel Messi done enough to deserve a spot on this list? Well, since we’re celebrating the MLS’ best Hispanic soccer players as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Messi certainly qualifies – particularly since he has already contributed so much to soccer’s popularity in North America.

What has Messi accomplished so far in MLS? He scored an astounding 10 goals in just seven Leagues Cup matches to propel Inter Miami all the way to the championship -- something that the previously cellar-dwelling Miami team seemed totally incapable of doing before his arrival.

If Messi can somehow lead Inter Miami to 2023 MLS Cup glory, he will move up higher on this list.

  1. Marco Etcheverry

Position: Forward
Nationality: Bolivia
Years in MLS: 1996 to 2003
MLS Team: DC United
Awards and Honors: MLS Cup Champion (1996, 1997, 1999), CONCACAF Champions League Champion (1998), MLS MVP (1988), MLS All-Star (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999), MLS Best XI (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999), MLS All-Time Best XI (2005) 

Former Bolivian forward Marco Etcheverry might be the greatest soccer player ever to come from his home country. He played 191 MLS games for DC United after joining the team from America de Cali in 1996. In those 191 career MLS games, he tallied 34 goals and 101 assists.

DC United was the most successful MLS club during the league’s early years, winning titles in 1996, 1997, and 1999, when the playmaking Etcheverry was pulling the strings in midfield. For his efforts, he was named in the MLS All-Time Best XI in 2005.

  1. Jaime Moreno

Position: Forward
Nationality: Bolivia
Years in MLS: 1996 to 2010
MLS Teams: DC United, MetroStars
Awards and Honors: MLS Cup Champion (1996, 1997, 1999, 2004), MLS Best XI (1997, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006), MLS All-Star (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000), MLS All-Time Best XI (2005) 

It’s hard to separate the two DC United Bolivian superstars, Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry. Moreno certainly had more longevity than his compatriot, hanging around MLS all the way until 2010 (with a loan detour at Middlesbrough from 1997 to 1998 along the way).

What did Moreno accomplish in MLS? He has the fifth-most career goals in league history with 133 (he retired as the all-time leader) and the most of any Hispanic player. He also has the sixth-most assists in MLS history. Most important, he helped lead DC United to a staggering four MLS Cup titles, the second-highest total of any club in league history.

According to Transfermarkt, Moreno is also the only player to win four MLS Cups with one club.

  1. Carlos Valderrama

Position: Attacking midfielder
Nationality: Colombia
Years in MLS: 1996 to 2002
MLS Teams: Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion, Colorado Rapids
Awards and Honors: MLS MVP (1996), MLS Best XI (1996, 1997, 2000), MLS All-Star (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000), MLS All-Time Best XI (2005) 

Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama was the first MLS superstar. He won the first-ever MLS MVP award during the league’s inaugural season in 1996 and helped lead the Tampa Bay Mutiny to the Supporters Shield (best regular-season record) in the process. He was also the first famous Latino MLS player.

Valderrama was an assist maestro in MLS, and holds the single-season record with an astonishing tally of 26 in 2000 (six more than the next-highest total). His 114 career assists are the fourth-most by any player in MLS history.

However, the Colombian star was more than just an on-field producer. The combination of his flair, unmistakable hair, enthusiasm for the game, and international prestige (Pele had voted him to the FIFA 100 as one the world’s greatest living players) helped vault MLS to international recognition.

Valderrama is therefore an easy choice to be recognized as the most celebrated and famous Hispanic soccer player in MLS history.

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