If soccer fans were surprised, can you imagine how passionate MLS fans felt? Yes, Lionel Messi to the MLS is a thing. It’s real. It’s happening. Messi will be playing games in Houston, Vancouver, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus. Lionel Messi will be in Columbus, Ohio.

While there are certainly other MLS Designated Players in 2023, including stars such as Javier Hernandez and Xherdan Shaqiri, none of them hold a candle to Messi. He is the type of player that teams in the MLS covet, someone who can spark an immediate and dramatic revenue increase by getting butts in seats.

There have been other star MLS Designated Players over the years. None of them had achieved Messi’s level of fame, but now is a good time to recall who they were and how well they performed.

Honorable Mentions

Some stars came to MLS a little too late in their careers and couldn’t contribute much in terms of quality. This group includes Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Didier Drogba among others.

Some Designated Players were great but simply didn’t stay too long. That group includes Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard.

Still, others have been stars but didn’t arrive with a high level of pedigree. Among them were Harry Mukhtar (the reigning MLS MVP), Josef Martinez (former MVP), and Bradley Wright-Phillips.

 Ranking the Top 10 Greatest Designated Players in MLS History

  1. Thierry Henry

Team: New York Red Bulls
Age When He Entered MLS: 32
Country: France
Salary: $5.6 million in 2012

We’re kicking off this list with a bang. In 2009, legendary French striker Thierry Henry had just won the treble (three major trophies) with a Barcelona team that included Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi, and Sergio Busquets.

Following the 2010 World Cup, Henry joined the New York Red Bulls with the goal of “lifting the MLS Cup.” While he never accomplished that feat, he did bag 52 goals in 135 total appearances. 

Most notably, Henry returned to Arsenal on loan in 2012 and scored a legendary goal against Leeds United. His is a legacy name on this list.

  1. Carlos Vela

Team: LAFC (Los Angeles FC)
Age When He Entered MLS: 28
Country: Mexico
Salary: $4.6 million in 2018

Here’s someone who was not a legacy MLS Designated Player. Mexican forward Carlos Vela was known as a talented player who could never quite shine on the big stage. A 21-goal haul with Real Sociedad in 2013-14 was impressive, but he bested this in Los Angeles.

Joining the expansion LAFC as the team’s marquee DP, Vela was steady in his first year (2018) before lighting up the league in 2019. He scored 34 MLS goals to capture league MVP honors and set the single-season MLS goals record. In 2022, Vela led LAFC to its first-ever MLS Cup win when they defeated the Philadelphia Union in penalty kicks.

While his goal tallies have dropped off in recent years, the Mexican’s performance in 2019 might well go down as the best individual season in MLS history.

  1. Landon Donovan

Teams: San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy
Age When He Entered MLS: 19
Country: United States
Salary: $4.25 million in 2014 

Countless articles have been written as to why talented American midfielder Landon Donovan never made a permanent move to a European club at the peak of his career. However, six MLS Cups, a place on the all-time best MLS XI team, seven MLS All-XI honors, and countless other awards demonstrate how important he was to the professional game in the United States.

The midfielder started off his career in the Bayer Leverkusen academy in Germany before returning on loan to the San Jose Earthquakes. During the MLS offseason, Donovan would occasionally go on loan spells to Europe, joining Bayern Munch in 2009 and Everton in both 2010 and 2012. He even won Everton Player of the Month twice! 

And, yes, even American players can count as Designated Players, because anyone who is paid over the base salary allotment qualifies as a DP.

  1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Team: LA Galaxy
Age When He Entered MLS: 36
Country: Sweden
Salary: $7.2 million in 2019

He played 58 games and scored 53 goals. On his debut in the “El Trafico” against city rivals LAFC, Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored one of the most breathtaking debut goals of all time. He then scored the winner later in the match. 

Never short on his own confidence, Ibrahimovic publicly stated that he was greater than LAFC star Carlos Vela because Vela was 29 and he was 37. If Ibrahimovic had joined the MLS when he was in his 20s, he surely would have smashed every goal-scoring record imaginable. That seems likely since at age 37 in 2019, he bagged 30 goals in 29 MLS games. Had he come over in his 20s, he would also be higher on this list.

After all, there is only one Zlatan. 

  1. Miguel Almiron

Team: Atlanta United
Age When He Entered MLS: 23
Country: Paraguay
Salary: $1.912 million in 2017 

Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron joined MLS expansion team Atlanta United in 2017 for an MLS record fee of $13 million.

In his two MLS seasons, Almiron was a two-time MLS Best XI honoree and led Atlanta United to an MLS Cup victory in just the second year of the team’s existence. Almiron raised his profile even higher and was sold to Premier League outfit Newcastle United for an MLS record sale of $27 million.

Almiron is not only one of the best MLS players of all time, he also provided the greatest bang for the buck in league history.

  1. Robbie Keane

Team: LA Galaxy
Age When He Entered MLS: 30
Country: Ireland
Salary: $3.5 million in 2015 

One of the more accomplished European players in MLS, Robbie Keane teamed up with David Beckham in Los Angeles in 2011. The Irishman won an MLS MVP (2014) and made the Best XI list in four of his five full campaigns. More impressively, he led the Galaxy to three MLS Cup victories.

In all, the striker bagged 104 goals in 164 appearances for the Galaxy. Keane has still got it today, as he recently scored twice for Team World in 2023 Soccer Aid.

  1. David Villa

Team: NYCFC (New York City FC)
Age When He Entered MLS: 32
Country: Spain
Salary: $5.6 million in 2018

The inaugural signing for expansion club NYCFC, Spanish soccer legend David Villa bagged 80 goals in 127 games for his new club. Perhaps most important was the fact that the former World Cup-winning striker parlayed his exceptional MLS performances into a return to the Spanish national team.

Having not played for the “La Roja” since the 2014 World Cup, a 2016 MLS MVP award and a hot start to the 2017 MLS campaign earned him a call-up for Spain’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

  1. Sebastian Giovinco

Team: Toronto FC
Age When He Entered MLS: 28
Country: Italy
Salary: $7.1 million in 2015 

The second-highest-paid MLS player during his time in Toronto, the diminutive Sebastian Giovinco lit up the league immediately. In his MVP-winning 2015 campaign, “the Atomic Ant” scored 22 goals and assisted 13 others, leading the league in both categories. 

Although he stood just 5-foot-3, Giovinco was an MLS Best XI honoree in three of his four seasons and helped Toronto FC win their first MLS Cup in 2017. He even won the CONCACAF Champions League Golden Ball in 2018 as Toronto came to a penalty shootout away from becoming the first MLS team to win the competition. 

  1. David Beckham

Team: LA Galaxy
Age When He Entered MLS: 31
Country: England 
Salary: $6.5 million in 2007  

There are two sides to the David Beckham-MLS story. There’s the on-field story -- where he won two MLS Cups and codified the LA Galaxy as perhaps the most popular and recognizable name in American soccer (indeed, four players on this list played for the Galaxy, the most of any team).

There is also the off-the-field story -- where Beckham’s arrival sparked most of the aforementioned DP arrivals in the first place. Was he ever the “top MLS player?” No, he wasn’t. However, there is no denying that he fundamentally changed the league. 

Beckham’s unique salary structure as an MLS player offered him the chance to purchase an expansion team down the road at a discounted rate. That team, Inter Miami, would one day bring in the player who ranks ahead of Beckham at No. 1 on this list. 

  1. Leo Messi

Team: Inter Miami
Age When He Entered MLS: 36
Country: Argentina
Salary: Total package between $125 and $150 million

Inter Miami is the new home of Argentine megastar and living legend Lionel Messi. He is so great that he can rank No. 1 on this list even before setting foot on an MLS field. 

As MLS DP’s go, what more could MLS teams want? Messi’s arrival is the ultimate coup for Major League Soccer because literally, no player in the history of the game has been more popular.

Here’s hoping you already have your tickets, because the cost of attending Messi’s MLS games is already skyrocketing.

Parameters of Rankings

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

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