Gareth Bale recently announced his retirement from soccer after a long and successful career. Most of his success came with Real Madrid, but Los Angeles FC got to receive the benefits of his quality in the final season of his career. In his only Major League Soccer season, he spearheaded LAFC to an MLS Cup championship, and with that, has already cemented himself as a legend of the league.
Throughout its history, many iconic players have played in the United States for a period of their careers after achieving huge success in the European game. But who were some of the most legendary to play in the league since its inaugural season in 1996?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is considered by many soccer fans as one of the greatest players ever to not win the UEFA Champions League. Despite his lack of success on the continental stage, the former Swedish international wasn't short of success in league titles. He won four Serie A titles at AC Milan and Inter Milan before coming to the MLS.
Ibrahimovic also won a La Liga title with FC Barcelona in 2010 and the FIFA Club World Cup in the same year. The peak of his career arguably came at Paris Saint-Germain where he won four consecutive league titles before departing for Manchester United. Despite being one of the greatest periods of his career, the Swedish star's time at PSG was criticized for his failure to deliver success on the European stage.
PSG has continued to struggle in the UCL since Ibrahimovic left, even with an all-star attack featuring Neymar Jr and Lionel Messi. PSG are one of the favorites to win the UCL this season across many sportsbooks but it would not be surprising if they came short again. OddsChecker has filtered the best odds offered by various different sportsbooks in the UCL outright winner markets with Manchester City, PSG, and Bayern Munich being the frontrunners across most. The odds comparison site acts as a guide for US football fans who wish to place a bet on soccer markets. DraftKings offers the Parisian side at +750 to finally lift the UCL title this season, but it would still be a huge shock if Messi and Neymar do not fall short as Ibrahimovic did in his time in France. Manchester City is the outright favorite offered at +180 at BetRivers and Bayern Munich is the other team fancied ahead of PSG at +700.
Sports betting on soccer is constantly increasing in popularity in the US as more and more people begin to follow the sport. Top European stars playing in the MLS in recent history have been a huge factor in creating new fans of the sport, and the domestic league itself has grown rapidly in recent years. Televised games of the MLS in the US in the 2022 season recorded an average of 343,000 viewers per game, compared to 295,000 in the prior season. The new Apple TV deal set to come into place for 2023 will undoubtedly encourage further growth, with the ability to watch all of the televised games on the go under a single subscription.
Thierry Henry is one of the greatest Premier League players ever and is certainly still the greatest forward since the English top-flight's restructure in the 1990s - Mohamed Salah could eclipse his goal and assist numbers in the league over the next few years.
The Frenchman won the Premier League Golden Boot four times and was a key member of Arsenal's invincible squad of 2004 that won the title with 26 victories, 12 draws, and zero defeats. Henry's achievements with Arsenal in the 2000s made him one of the most recognizable soccer players in the world.
While Henry was best known for his time at Arsenal, it was his FIFA World Cup victory with France in 1998 that led to the Gunners signing him after just six months in Italy with Juventus. He added further international success in the European Championships of 2000, which meant he had won everything he could with his national team.
His goalscoring antics were crucial for France in the tournament, his most important strike coming in extra time of the semi-final when he netted the winner against Portugal. He managed a further two goals and an assist across the tournament which cemented a strong international legacy in the early stages of his career.
The explosive forward left North London for Catalonia in 2007 to link up with Lionel Messi. They won the Champions League title together in 2008/09 which culminated in the final in Rome, Henry started alongside Messi and Samuel Eto'o as FC Barcelona completed a famous treble with a two-goal victory over Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.
It happened to be the final competitive game that Henry would play in Spain as he left for New York Red Bulls in the summer. He spent many years in New York, which has led to the club being associated with his name ever since. Henry stamped his identity and authority on the club in terms of the demands he made of his teammates. He was also a huge marketing success - the footballing world will always remember that the great Thierry Henry ended his career playing in New York. David Beckham
David Beckham was one of the first global superstars to play in the MLS when he decided to join LA Galaxy in 2007. He enjoyed a hugely successful career at a number of massive clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, and PSG. Beckham experienced the majority of his success at Old Trafford, where under Sir Alex Ferguson's guidance he won the Premier League title six times.
The former English international was also a major part of the team that won the Champions League in 1999, in a dramatic comeback victory in added time against Bayern Munich. He was awarded the UEFA Best Player in Europe award for his incredible performances that year as he led United to an iconic treble success.
In Madrid, he enjoyed a much smaller amount of success as he played in a side that was in transition with a number of legendary players such as Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo Nazario winding down their careers. Nevertheless, the fact a player that was once the best player in Europe and played with some of the greatest Brazilians ever decided to join LA Galaxy of the MLS was a huge statement. In terms of his overall global reach aside from just the soccer world, he is comfortably the biggest brand in terms of an individual to ever be associated with the league.
The former England midfielder kickstarted the trend of top European players joining MLS teams which has been invaluable for the growth of the league. Some of his fellow England legends such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard have played in the MLS since he retired, and have all similarly become strongly associated with the clubs they played for. Beckham himself has even continued to have an influence on the league, he is the president and co-owner of Inter Miami CF.
Many top players have played a part of their careers in the MLS, but the greatest Scandinavian of all time, a World Cup winner, and a former best player in Europe award winner are surely the pick of the bunch. The trend of top European players moving to the MLS will undoubtedly continue in the future, and maybe players will even begin to move to the league in their prime. Perhaps eventually the globe's best footballing talent playing in the US will be normality, rather than something that comes around every few years.