How do you define a legend?
Is it in his latent technical skill? His goal-scoring prowess? Ability to stop attacks before they become significantly dangerous?
And how do you stack one up against another to determine which one was, for lack of a better term, better? The debate rages like a brushfire through the MLS MVP discussion each year, and we’re revisiting those principles today, spurred on by comments made earlier this year by Jim Curtin and Jesse Marsch on their respective club's greatest ever.
Each MLS club has its own definition of a club legend reaching down the halls of posterity, and today we’re breaking down the best player for each of the current 20 clubs in MLS (before Atlanta United and Minnesota United join in 2017).
My own definition of “best” stretches across the spectrum to touch each pole. Technical ability is important, but so too is impact over time. That’s particularly obvious when you reach my pick for the Red Bulls’ best of all time (but not so important that it kept my pick for the Sounders’ best ever out of the discussion). Longevity matters, too, but ultimately your spadework at the club is paramount.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the best players for each MLS club based on their MLS tenures:
Chicago Fire: Cuauhtemoc Blanco
It’s perhaps no secret Chicago’s last dabble at sustained year-over-year success came with Blanco pulling the strings. In truth, few creators the league has ever seen have been as elusive, and Blanco’s numbers are unassailable. In three seasons he scored 23 goals, helped guide the Fire to three consecutive conference final appearances and even snagged the league’s goal of the year in 2007. A club legend.
Colorado Rapids: Pablo Mastroeni
It took the Rapids 14 years to win an MLS Cup, and the unerringly consistent Mastroeni was at the pulsing core of the 2010 run. Carlos Valderrama might’ve had a cup of coffee in Colorado, but nobody meant more (and did more at a consistently higher level) at altitude than Mastroeni. After 11 years, 225 appearances and an MLS Cup title, Mastroeni proved himself as perhaps the league’s most consistent defensive midfielder at the time.
Columbus Crew SC: Guillermo Barros Schelotto
Set aside Schelotto’s skill for a moment and look at how successful the Crew were while he was pulling the strings from 2007 to 2010: two Supporters’ Shields and an MLS Cup in three years. Doesn’t get much better than that. The 2008 league MVP was an irreconcilable threat for defenses, pouring in 38 goals in MLS and capturing the MLS Cup MVP award in 2008 as well. He isn’t just the Crew’s most talented. He’s one of MLS’s most talented. Ever.
D.C. United: Eddie Pope
The discussions about the best defenders in league history tend to include different names depending on who’s doing the rating. Except for Pope, who somehow manages to find himself on everyone’s top five (and as many people’s No. 1). In the first three years of MLS, Pope scored a golden goal to win an MLS Cup, was named MLS Defender of the Year, won another MLS Cup and won a CONCACAF Champions Cup. As far as MLS center backs go, it doesn’t get any better.
FC Dallas: Mauro Diaz
Getting the FCD base to agree on this pick will probably be impossible given the careers of Jason Kreis and Carlos Ruiz (among others). But Diaz’s run at FCD has coincided with the best in club history, and there can be little substantive debate that in terms of technical skill, he’s not only the best in team history but one of the best MLS has ever seen. He remains an absolute marvel to watch.
Houston Dynamo: Brian Ching
As good as Will Bruin has been in orange, the original goal-scoring Dynamo is Ching. The former USMNT stalwart was a back-to-goal terror for Houston, providing a legitimate outlet up top and one of the most lethal finishing touches in MLS. In seven years with the club, Ching scored 56 times in 169 appearances and led his side to two MLS Cup titles. The 2006 final was his masterpiece: a 114th minute game-tying goal and the winning penalty.
LA Galaxy: Landon Donovan
The Galaxy have seemingly had a never-ending parade of quality over the years, but you’ll never find a mixture of quality and impact of the kind Donovan enjoyed. Perhaps the best American player ever, Donovan won three MLS Cups in LA and scored a staggering 112 goals in 247 games in SoCal. Guys like David Beckham deserve praise, but none were better for longer than Donovan.
Montreal Impact: Didier Drogba
The Impact’s MLS history is relatively thin, so perhaps it’s no surprise it’s Drogba. But don’t mistake proximity for talent; Drogba hadn’t lost much of a step by the time he showed up north of the border. He enjoyed perhaps the best initial half-season in MLS history in 2015, and by the time he left the Impact at the end of 2016 he had 21 goals in 33 games. A force at any age.
New England Revolution: Shalrie Joseph
Revs fans are mostly split in half over the best in Revs history during one of their many runs to MLS Cup runners-up: Joseph or Taylor Twellman. For my money, Joseph was the better player for longer, even if he wasn’t the more glamorous of the two. At the time, he was the No. 1 defensive midfielder in the league, and everything the Revs did was predicated on his titanium shield.
New York City FC: David Villa
As far as Designated Players go, it's hard to argue few have been more invested in the league than Spanish superstar David Villa. The striker has been an imperial presence for the nascent club, scoring a hard-to-believe 41 goals in just two years (and snagging the 2016 MVP award to boot). Whether or not onlookers expected it, David Villa looks like the same guy who rode to international acclaim with five clubs in Spain over 13 years before joining MLS.
New York Red Bulls: Bradley Wright-Phillips
There’s no question Thierry Henry was the most talented player to ever play for the Red Bulls, but Wright-Phillips flashed the most talent for the longest in an actual Red Bulls jersey. One of the most devastating goal-scorers in league history, Wright-Phillips has two Golden Boots in three years and has saved the Red Bulls with his efficiency time and again. There’s an argument, but Wright-Phillips should win it on balance and head coach Jesse Marsch agrees.
Orlando City: Kaká
There should be no debate here. A mountain of hype followed Brazilian legend Kaká to Orlando, and he delivered on just about every facet of it. The creative force of nature has been immense for Orlando City, propping up one of the league’s most devastating attacks and providing pinpoint balls for Cyle Larin, who wouldn’t reach his heights without Kaka’s creative engine. Whenever he leaves the league, Orlando City fans will mourn.
Philadelphia Union: Tranquillo Barnetta
Don’t take it from me, take it from Union boss Jim Curtin, who said: “He’s the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey, in my opinion.” Barnetta will no longer be with the team after this offseason, but Union fans will forever remember the forceful attacking midfielder as the point of the spear for a Union team that broke through to the 2016 postseason after a string of tortuous absences. The Union don’t perhaps have a single abiding international star name here, but Barnetta earned his place.
Portland Timbers: Diego Valeri
In a relatively short amount of time, Valeri’s managed to become one of the best creative attacking midfielders in the history of MLS. The 2015 MLS Cup title he helped spearhead was a just reward for his talent, but watch him direct the flow of a game in the final third and you’ll understand immediately. In 116 games in Portland, Valeri’s amassed an incredible 37 goals and 42 assists. The unquestioned King of Portland.
Real Salt Lake: Javier Morales
The current wave of Argentinian No. 10s more or less found its rooting in Morales. The massively productive creative force departed the club this offseason with just about every club record in tow. In nine years at RSL, he managed an incredible 81 assists, and he was the face of the franchise for a decade before leaving this offseason. Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando were close, but nobody was better for longer at a more hard-to-fill position than Morales.
San Jose Earthquakes: Chris Wondolowski
International success might’ve been fleeting for Wondolowski, but in terms of club success the dynamic attacker belongs in the pantheon with the giants of MLS. Wondolowski’s consistency in front of goal is an anomaly, not just in MLS but anywhere. For seven consecutive seasons, Wondolowski’s logged at least 2,300 minutes and hit at least 11 goals every single year. That kind of production defies logic. No surprise for the team’s best ever.
Seattle Sounders: Nicolas Lodeiro
Arguments for Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins or Fredy Montero are well-founded, but none were on the field (or had such an outsized role) in the team’s first ever MLS Cup title. Lodeiro’s creative impetus came to bear in so short a time that he became an all-time Sounders legend almost overnight. Perhaps no other player in MLS history had such a swift, holistic impact on the team he joined.
Sporting Kansas City: Preki
With the glitzy highlight packages we get nowadays, it’s almost easy to forget how ridiculously talented Preki was in his day. The slithery Yugoslav was an unbelievable attacking force for Sporting KC, racking up 71 goals and 98 assists in nine years with the club as the most dangerous all-around attacker in the league. He remains the league’s all-time points leader and has been a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame for six years now. Good luck topping this.
Toronto FC: Sebastian Giovinco
In the new era of MLS, where prestige counts for significantly less than talent in Designated Player signings, it’s hard to find a better acquisition than Giovinco. The diminutive Italian’s been ever-present for TFC, racking up 39 goals and 31 assists in turning TFC from an also-ran into a legitimate MLS Cup title contender. But travel beyond the numbers and simply watch Giovinco operate. If you can find a more talented, in-form player in league history, you’ll have to look hard.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Camilo
Whitecaps supporters might not find this one particularly easy to swallow considering the relatively acrimonious way Camilo left the club. But on a team that’s lacked for star power since joining MLS, Camilo’s been the brightest, most skillful and most productive player to wear the white and blue. In three years from 2011-2013, he racked up 39 goals, including an unbelievable 22 in his last year in Vancouver. Few in league history have been so ready to uncork a golazo at a moment’s notice.