Beckham, Henry, Ibrahimovic and the 21 best MLS transfer signings of all time

Best MLS transfers Beckham Henry Rooney
GOAL
With former Real Madrid star Gareth Bale on his way to LAFC, GOAL picks out the most significant signings in the league's history

Since its foundation in 1993, MLS has been able to attract some of the most famous faces in soccer.

From Champions League winners to World Cup icons, several legendary figures have spent parts of their career in North America, adding much-needed global appeal and legitimacy to a competition that is still very much growing.

However, we've also seen the arrival of potential superstars with something to prove, as well as the return of homegrown heroes who played a major role in changing the entire perception of the brand.

So, with all of that in mind, GOAL takes a look at the most significant signings in MLS history...

  1. David Beckham
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    David Beckham

    The man that changed everything.

    Without Beckham, there would be no Designated Player rule and, with no Designated Player rule, most of this list wouldn't be possible. The England icon's decision to join the LA Galaxy changed American soccer forever and, through his ownership of Inter Miami, he's still a key figure in MLS today.

    By signing Beckham, the LA Galaxy solidified their place as MLS' Hollywood franchise, a reputation that continues today.

    During his time in MLS, Beckham won two MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shields, made a whole bunch of money for himself and the league and, perhaps most importantly for his own legacy, became a trailblazer that ushered in a new era of star power in American soccer.

  2. Carlos Valderrama
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    Carlos Valderrama

    While Beckham may have changed the game, he wasn't MLS' first global star.

    That distinction falls to Valderrama, the famous Colombian maestro known for his incredible afro and his even better playmaking.

    El Pibe was in MLS from 1997 to 2002, playing for the Miami Fusion, Tampa Bay Mutiny and Colorado Rapids. Yes, Valderrama spent several years in snowy Colorado!

    Valderrama offered the league a bit of legitimacy during the late 90s and early 2000s while capturing the hearts of those that loved his flamboyant style of play.

  3. Thierry Henry
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    Thierry Henry

    Perhaps the best player in Premier League history, Henry didn't hold back upon arriving in MLS.

    Henry was brought in by the New York Red Bulls to be the star attraction for their new stadium, and he lived up to every bit of the hype.

    During his time stateside, Henry treated every game like the Champions League final, an attitude that endeared him to those that followed the league.

    From knowing the specifics of every team to his frequent praise of some of American soccer's rising stars, Henry brought a new level of professionalism and detail to the American game.

    And, oh yeah, he also scored lots of goals too, 52 to be precise.

  4. Robbie Keane
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    Robbie Keane

    It could easily be argued that Robbie Keane was the best player in MLS history.

    The former Republic of Ireland captain scored 104 goals in 165 games, won three MLS Cups and helped keep the LA Galaxy atop the league for the entirety of his MLS career.

    In a word, Keane was dominant, proving himself the top striker in MLS. He made the best XI in four straight seasons and was named the Galaxy's club MVP four times as well.

    The Dubliner may not have been the biggest name in MLS history, but he may just be the most successful import the league has ever seen.

  5. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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    Zlatan Ibrahimovic

    What more is there to say about Zlatan than the man hasn't already said about himself?

    The self-proclaimed "lion" came to MLS to change the game, and he wasted little time in doing just that. His famous debut in El Trafico was the stuff of legends and he only build on that legend during his time in Los Angeles.

    He didn't win trophies like his predecessors with the Galaxy, but he certainly created as many headlines. The Swedish star scored plenty of goals, created plenty of memories and, most iconically, said plenty of wild things during his time as a Hollywood star.

    As he left MLS for a return to his dream club, AC Milan, he had a simple message: "You're welcome".

  6. Sebastian Giovinco
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    Sebastian Giovinco

    While 'the Atomic Ant' never reached incredible heights in Europe, he did become the first true in-their-prime international from a major country to choose to come to MLS.

    Giovinco was a semi-regular at Juventus and with the Italian national team, but he became a legitimate superstar in Toronto.

    While in Canada, he helped lead TFC from the bottom rung of MLS all the way to an MLS Cup while earning MVP honors along the way.

    The diminutive Italian showed that MLS wasn't just a league for aging stars to cash in, but also a league for talented players to find a fresh start and, perhaps, a club to call home.

    His time in MLS ended on a sour note, with Giovinco claiming he was essentially forced out of Toronto, but that doesn't diminish his status as one of the best signings in the league's history.

  7. Clint Dempsey
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    Clint Dempsey

    While Dempsey isn't an international star, his return to MLS with the Seattle Sounders was the start of a major trend.

    Dempsey's decision to leave Tottenham for Seattle came at a time when U.S. men's national team stars saw their value skyrocket stateside.

    Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore all left Europe for MLS, but it was the former Fulham forward that was the biggest coup as he continued his path towards becoming the USMNT's all-time leading scorer.

    Perhaps the best player in USMNT history, Dempsey helped take Seattle soccer even higher while ushering in a new era for American players in their own domestic league.

  8. David Villa
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    David Villa

    Upon their arrival in MLS, NYCFC went big with three marquee signings. Of the three, VIlla was the best.

    Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo never truly acclimated to life in MLS, but Villa sure did as he put up MVP-like numbers throughout his tenure.

    Villa joined the league fresh off an appearance in the Champions League final with Atletico Madrid, and he never fully slowed down until his eventual departure for Japan.

    Villa scored 80 goals in 126 games, even earning a Spain recall in 2017, three years after his last national team cap.

    That showed just how good Villa was on the field as he was the true face of the club as the two stars brought in alongside him never quite took off.

  9. Miguel Almiron

    Miguel Almiron

    The Paraguayan wasn't a big name when he signed with Atlanta United back in 2016, but everyone certainly knew who he was by the time he left MLS three years later with an MLS Cup in hand.

    Brought in as both a present and future asset by expansion Atlanta, Almiron justified his  $8 million (£6.4m) price tag almost instantly as he emerged as one of the most dynamic players in the league.

    A talented midfielder with pace and skill, Almiron helped the Atlanta attack terrorize MLS during his two seasons stateside.

    By the end of that second season, Newcastle came calling with a $27m (£21.5m) offer which ended Almiron's stay in the U.S.

    His signing, and sale, proved that talented, young players can use the league as a stepping stone, with several top South Americans following Almiron's lead in the years since his departure.

  10. Wayne Rooney

    Wayne Rooney

    It's hard to tell who got more out of Rooney's time in MLS: the striker, the club or the league itself.

    Rooney seemingly relished the opportunity to try something different stateside after years of being under English media's microscope. He enjoyed a bit more anonymity in the U.S. capital, while also seemingly embracing his status as a mentor and leader with the club.

    But Rooney wasn't just in the U.S. to coach or relax, as evidenced by his famous track back and cross that remains an absolute must-include for any MLS highlight reel.

    Rooney finished his MLS career with 25 goals in just 52 appearances, but certainly left his mark during his brief stay. 

  11. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez
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    Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez

    One of the biggest stars in North American soccer eventually made his way to MLS.

    The Galaxy's deal to sign Chicharito was arguably as big as the moves to sign Ibrahimovic and Beckham, though the former Manchester United star will still need to reach the heights those two reached during their time in MLS.

    After a difficult first season that saw him admittedly battle mental health struggles, the Mexican star bounced back in big way during his second season in MLS, making him one of the most feared strikers in the league.

  12. Carlos Vela

    Carlos Vela

    Upon entering the league, LAFC wanted to make a splash, and boy did they with the signing of Vela.

    The former Arsenal winger has been among the best in MLS since his arrival. His 34-goal sophomore season in MLS was among the best in league history, earning him MVP honors.

    Injuries have caught up with him in recent years but, make no mistake: there have been few players in MLS history that can take over a game like Vela.

  13. Kaka
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    Kaka

    By the time he arrived in MLS with Orlando City, Kaka had lost some of that trademark blistering pace that saw him weave through Europe's best defenses.

    But the Brazilian was still technically miles ahead of nearly all of his opponents in MLS.

    The Ballon d'Or winner had his swansong in Florida, scoring 25 goals in his three seasons in MLS. And MLS fans will count themselves lucky to have seen one of Brazil's greatest exports thrive stateside before calling it a career.

  14. Bastian Schweinsteiger
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    Bastian Schweinsteiger

    One of the greatest midfielders of all time, the German star was charged with reinvigorating a Chicago Fire team that had fallen on hard times.

    He wasn't fully able to do that on the field, although he did help the club return to the playoffs, but he certainly provided a much-needed lift to the club's culture during his time in Chicago.

    The German truly was the face of the franchise, and he served the club admirably in midfielder and at centerback during his three-year stay.

  15. Frank Lampard
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    Frank Lampard

    Although his time in MLS never quite went to plan, Lampard's arrival in New York was a big deal.

    The former Chelsea midfielder saw his MLS career derailed by injuries, but he still did give NYCFC a big dose of starpower during his time with the club.

    He was limited to just 31 appearances across two seasons with NYCFC, but he did score 15 goals in those 31 appearances as he offered a glimpse into the finishing ability that made him so famous in the Premier League.

  16. Andrea Pirlo
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    Andrea Pirlo

    The final member of NYCFC's famous trio, Pirlo's time in MLS was more Lampard than Villa.

    The Italian maestro admittedly struggled with the pace, physicality and conditions of MLS as he never fully shined in New York.

    He was, however, the first MLS player in history to be nominated for the FIFPro World XI during his first season with the club, showing ust how good he was at the time of his move.

  17. Steven Gerrard
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    Steven Gerrard

    Most will choose to remember Gerrard as a one-club man, such is his connection with Liverpool. However, England legend end his career wearing the Galaxy white, not the Liverpool Red.

    Gerrard followed in Beckham's footsteps to join the Galaxy but, admittedly, his heart was never fully in it as he struggled with the travel and heat.

    He did enjoy his time in LA, though, as the Liverpool legend enjoyed his time out of the public eye in Hollywood before calling it a career.

  18. Josef Martinez

    One of the biggest stars in MLS history, without a doubt. Almiron may have gotten the big transfer, but it's Martinez that is the heart and soul of Atlanta United.

    Martinez holds the MLS record for goals in a season and postseason, hat-tricks and most consecutive games scored, while also putting together the most decorated single season in MLS by claiming the MVP, All-Star Game MVP, Golden Boot and MLS Cup Final MVP awards in 2018.

    In short, there's little Martinez hasn't done since joining from Torino back in 2017.

  19. Giorgio Chiellini
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    Giorgio Chiellini

    As the league starts to move away from the signing of European veterans, the Chiellini signing, like the man himself, is something of a throwback.

    LAFC have brought one of this generation's finest defenders to MLS, and they've done so on a relatively cheap deal.

    A Euros winner and a Serie A champion, few players can go toe-to-toe when it comes to accolades, with Chiellini among the best players, not just defenders, to come stateside.

  20. Didier Drogba

    Didier Drogba

    After spending years dominating the Premier League with Chelsea, Drogba made stops in China, Turkey and, ultimately, North America to end his career.

    Drogba's run with the Montreal Impact gave the club a megastar, with the Ivorian scoring 23 goals during his season-and-a-half in Canada.

    It wasn't his last stop, though, as Drogba ended up becoming a minority owner of Phoenix Rising in the USL, playing in the U.S. lower leagues before retiring.

  21. Gareth Bale
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    Gareth Bale

    There were suggestions that Gareth Bale could retire as he approached the end of a spell at Real Madrid that delivered three La Liga titles and five Champions League crowns.

    He still has plenty left in the tank, though, after hitting free agency - and a World Cup finals to think about with Wales.

    Britain's greatest export to continental Europe is now ready to take his considerable skill set to the United States, with there enough match-altering ability in his locker to light up MLS and the City of Angels.