Messi to MLS mania is in full swing right now, but it’s important to remember he’s not the first Argentinian to join MLS. Some have entered with great hoopla (Gonzalo Higuain), staggering transfer fees (Thiago Almada), or little fanfare (Maxi Moralez).

Let’s look back at 10 of Messi’s best MLS predecessors from his home country.

How many Argentinians are in MLS?

As of 2020, there were 42 Argentine players in the MLS.

Famous Argentine Soccer players who played in MLS

Lionel Messi will be the most famous citizen of Argentina ever to play in MLS, rivaled only by his former national team teammate Gonzalo Higuain. Thiago Almada, a teammate of Messi’s on the 2022 World Cup championship team, also plays in MLS with Atlanta United.

Honorable Mentions

Before we take a look at the 10 greatest Argentines in MLS history, here are a few honorable mentions who just missed the cut: FC Cincinnati winger Luciano Acosta, New England Revolution forward Gustavo Bou, Columbus Crew midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, and Minnesota United midfielder Emanuel Reynoso.

Ranking the Top 10 Greatest Argentinian Players in MLS History

10/9. Federico and Gonzalo HiguainPositions: Midfielder (Federico); Striker (Gonzalo)
Years Active in MLS: 2012 to 2021 (Federico); 2020 to 2022 (Gonzalo)
Teams: Columbus Crew, DC United, Inter Miami (Federico); Inter Miami (Gonzalo)
Awards: MLS Newcomer of the Year (2012) (Federico) 

Brothers Federico and Gonzalo Higuain had dramatically different MLS careers. The older brother, Federico, joined the Columbus Crew at age 28 and proceeded to play 232 MLS matches in his career, bagging 60 goals, winning the 2012 MLS Newcomer of the Year award, and leading the Crew to the 2015 MLS Cup. Before entering MLS, he toiled in the Argentine Primera Division and Turkish Super Lig.

Gonzalo, on the other hand, was once one of the most expensive transfers of all time when (after setting the single-season Serie A goals record) he joined Juventus for around €90 million ($100 million) in 2016. In 2020, a 33-year-old Gonzalo was seeking a different challenge after struggling to coexist with Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus. He went ahead and signed with Inter Miami, where he was soon joined by his brother.

Despite some initial criticism that he showed a blatant lack of effort, Gonzalo Higuain accepted a bench role and helped lead Inter Miami to the MLS playoffs. He scored 29 goals in 67 appearances.

  1. Thiago Almada

Position: Midfielder
Years Active in MLS: 2022 to present
Team: Atlanta United
Awards: FIFA World Cup (2022), MLS Newcomer of the Year (2022), MLS All-Star (2022)

A World Cup winner valued at €20 million ($22 million) on Transfermarkt, Thiago Almada has used his time at Atlanta United as a springboard to international fame. Since joining Atlanta from Velez Sarsfield prior to the 2022 season for a league-record $16 million fee, the diminutive midfielder already has 32 combined goals and assists in just 47 league appearances, and he’s still only 22.

If Almada had already played in the MLS for 10 to 15 years, he would be the hands-down No. 1 player on this list. Since he will likely move to Europe in the next 24 months and only has 47 MLS appearances to his name, we will rank him here at No. 8.

  1. Maximiliano Moralez

Position: Midfielder
Years Active in MLS: 2017 to 2022
Awards: MLS Cup (2021), MLS Best XI (2019), MLS All-Star (2019) 

Like some other players on this list, the diminutive, 5-foot-3 midfielder Maxi Moralez joined MLS’  NYCFC at age 30 after a career spent in Argentina, Italy, Russia, and Mexico. He turned into an assist machine in New York, tallying 50 in his 162 games and forming a deadly partnership with fellow Argentine Taty Castellanos (keep reading for more on him).

The duo teamed up to lead NYCFC to the 2021 MLS Cup championship. Moralez scored in a 2-1 semifinal victory against the Philadelphia Union and assisted on the only NYCFC goal in the final, where his team went on to defeat the Portland Timbers on penalties.

  1. Taty Castellanos

Position: Forward
Years Active in MLS: 2018 to 2022
Awards: MLS Cup (2021), MLS Best XI (2021), MLS Golden Boot (2021) 

Taty Castellanos just completed a very successful first year in La Liga for a high-flying Girona team that finished 10th in its first season back up from the Segunda Division. He scored 13 league goals, including a historic four-goal game against Real Madrid.

Before that, Castellanos was tearing it up for another City team, NYCFC. He joined the MLS club from Universidad de Chile in 2018 at just 19 years old, but it took the young Argentinian a few years to flourish. A 19-goal Golden Boot and title-winning season in 2021 was followed up by an impressive 13 goals in a 17-game return to start the 2022 MLS season. He joined Girona shortly afterward and looks destined for bigger things. That is certainly not bad for someone who originally was one of the most highly touted MLS Designated Players.

  1. Guillermo Barros Schelotto

Position: Forward
Years Active in MLS: 2007 to 2010
Team: Columbus Crew
Awards: MLS Cup (2008), MLS MVP (2008), MLS Cup MVP (2008), MLS Best XI (2007, 2008) 

The current manager of the Paraguay national team, Guillermo Schelotto joined the Columbus Crew in 2007 from Boca Juniors in his native Argentina. He was already 34 years old at the time, but that didn’t stop him from immediately chipping in by either scoring or assisting on 16 goals. 

What did he do for an encore? In 2008, Schelotto romped to the MLS MVP award with seven goals and 19 assists as the Crew won the 2008 MLS Cup. Schelotto was also named the MLS Cup MVP that year. Decent seasons followed in 2009 and 2010 before Schelotto returned to Argentina to play for Gimnasia La Plata, where he had started his career. 

  1. Christian Gomez

Position: Midfielder
Years Active in MLS: 2004 to 2009
Teams: DC United, Colorado Rapids
Awards: MLS Cup (2004), MLS MVP (2006), MLS Best XI (2005, 2006, 2007) 

Christian Gomez’s MLS story arc was very similar to Guillermo Schelotto’s. After bouncing between domestic Argentine clubs for a number of years in the 1990s and early 2000s, Gomez joined DC United in 2004. Despite being a midseason acquisition, his arrival helped spark the club to the MLS title.

Gomez exploded the next season, having a hand in 18 goals before doing himself one better with 22 the following campaign. At the end of that 2006 season, Gomez captured the 2006 MLS MVP award. After a brief stint with the Colorado Rapids and a return to DC United, Gomez left MLS in 2009 as a three-time member of the MLS Best XI and an MLS Cup champion. He might have played for multiple MLS teams, but Gomez is remembered first and foremost as a DC United star.

  1. Ignacio Piatti

Position: Winger
Years Active in MLS: 2014 to 2019
Team: Montreal Impact
Awards: MLS Best XI (2016, 2018), MLS All-Star (2016, 2017, 2018)

Ignacio Piatti joined the Montreal Impact in 2014 from San Lorenzo and left after 2019 as “Mr. Montreal Impact.” In addition to his 66 goals and 31 assists in 135 appearances, Piatti led the Impact to a CONCACAF Champions League final in 2015, an MLS Eastern Conference Final in 2016, and a Canadian championship in 2019.

All told, Piatti is the all-time leading Montreal Impact goal-scorer and has the most MLS minutes played in club history. He was twice an MLS Best XI and is one of the top MLS players of all time. 

  1. Leo Messi

Position: Forward
Years Active in MLS: 2023 to present (debut set for July 21)
Team: Inter Miami
Awards: None yet

Just by stepping foot on an MLS field during a competitive league game, Lionel Messi will become the “most talented” Argentinian to ever play in the league. The fact he is not yet No. 1 on this list is a true testament to the man ranked above him. 

Messi’s MLS deal has certain commercial levers that will force him to root for the long-term success of the league. These incentives provide him an opportunity to one day purchase an MLS club at a discounted price while paying him a boatload of money for as long as he plays. In a summer when many famous older players are flocking to Saudi Arabia, Messi’s move to North America stands out. Perhaps more Argentine national team players will follow? Former Barcelona players already have.

Related: Featuring names like Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Sebastian Giovinco. Here are the 10 greatest Designated Players in MLS history.

  1. Diego Valeri

Position: Midfielder
Years Active in MLS: 2013 to 2021
Team: Portland Timbers
Awards: MLS Cup (2015), MLS MVP (2017), MLS Cup MVP (2015), Newcomer of the Year (2013), MLS Best XI (2013, 2014, 2017) 

If Ignacio Piatti is “Mr. Montreal,” Diego Valeri has to be “Mr. Portland” and then some. Joining MLS in 2013 from Lanus in his native Argentina (after a devastating robbery was committed against him and his family), Valeri quickly took to the MLS, winning Newcomer of the Year honors. By 2015, he was the fulcrum of a Portland Timbers team that captured the MLS Cup. Valeri scored the opening goal 27 minutes into the final match and was named the MLS Cup MVP.

Valeri’s 2017 campaign was fantastic. He had 21 goals and nine assists in a season that ended with the MLS MVP award. He followed that up with a 21 goal/assist season that helped lead an underdog Timbers team back to the MLS Cup final, where they lost to Atlanta. He left Portland following the 2021 season with 100 goals in a Timbers uniform (the most of any player) and he remains the 14th-highest scorer in league history. Valeri is truly a league legend and the best Argentine player in MLS history.

Parameters of Rankings

These rankings are based on a combination of the hype each player generated in terms of fan interest, each player’s individual level of performance, the success of each player’s teams, and the impact each player had on MLS as a whole.

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