In late 1993, the United States wanted to restart its professional soccer program about a decade after the fall of the North American Soccer League. The hope was that some of the world’s best players would want to come to the United States and join the new clubs, and thus Major League Soccer was born with the first season being played in 1996.
Though the prestige of the MLS hasn’t matched the major leagues around the world just yet, there have been plenty of international players who have made their way stateside and earned some big salaries. Here are five international stars who cashed in on the MLS. Before we get to the list, some of the names that just missed the cut include David Villa, Jorge Campos, Gareth Bale, and Robbie Keane.
Colombian footballer Carlos Valderrama was the original MLS superstar, and the midfielder had spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s as one of the best players in the world. Known mostly for his time with Deportivo Cali in the late 1980s, Valderrama joined Major League Soccer during its first season, signing with the Tampa Bay Mutiny while in his mid-30s.
Valderrama spent six years in the MLS, and on top of Tampa Bay also played for the Miami Fusion and Colorado Rapids before retiring after the 2002 season. Valderrama finished his career with 175 matches and 16 goals, winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield in his first season, and was the MVP of the first season. Valderrama was far and away the highest-paid player of the fledgling league.
Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had a lot of stops throughout his professional football career, playing for more than half a dozen clubs before joining the MLS. Most notably, Ibrahimovic was with Inter Milan for three years, netting 57 goals in just 70 matches.
Prior to the 2018 MLS season, Ibrahimovic surprised a lot of people by signing a contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy for just $1.5 million. That salary would increase dramatically the following year, with the star earning $7.2 million. While it might not seem like a lot, the MLS does have a low salary cap and Ibrahimovic was earning plenty on the side. After two seasons, he headed back to Europe and joined AC Milan in 2020, finishing with 56 games and 52 goals, making the All-Star Team in both seasons.
French football star Thierry Henry found a lot of success at the beginning of his career with Monaco, but truly hit it big when he joined Arsenal and became a tremendous goal scorer. After eight years with the club, Henry spent three more with Barcelona, then made his way to America.
Henry joined the New York Red Bulls on a five-year contract worth $22.4 million. This set a new precedent in the MLS as Henry’s salary alone exceeded the cap that was set by the league. Henry played for all five seasons, with his most impressive being the 2012 campaign in which he had 15 goals and 12 assists in 25 games. Overall, Henry had 51 goals before retiring following the 2014 season.
Wayne Rooney was an absolute legend in England, starting his professional career with Everton for three years before being transferred to Manchester United. Rooney spent 13 years with Man U, scoring 183 goals in nearly 400 appearances, and then made another stop with Everton before heading to the United States.
The details of Rooney’s contract weren’t explicitly stated for his second season, but he made nearly $2.8 million in his first year. Insiders said that the second season paid him north of $6 million, and those were his only two in Major League Soccer. However, Rooney would retire and become the manager of the team who signed him (D.C. United) and earned a cool $1 million in his first year. In his 48 career MLS games, Rooney scored 23 goals.
Even if he wasn’t the truly greatest player that England has ever seen, David Beckham was certainly one of the most famous. Beckham had come up with Manchester United, spending more than a decade with the club before heading to Real Madrid for a few years during the mid-2000s.
Beckham was the biggest acquisition in American soccer history, with the player earning $36.5 million over his six seasons with the LA Galaxy from 2007 to 2012. During that time, Beckham scored 18 goals in 98 career games, but the most lucrative part of his contract was the ownership stipulation. Beckham’s contract allowed him to own an MLS team after his playing days, and he started an expansion team (Inter Miami).