Most internet memes pass quickly with our short attention spans, but the "Who wore it best?" debate has endured like a champ. With ample soccer-less time on our hands nowadays, we played that game with every jersey number ever worn in Major League Soccer.
There was only one set-in-concrete rule: Only the time spent in a specific shirt counted. For instance, Alexi Lalas didn't get credit in the No. 22 judging for what he did while wearing No. 30, and vice versa.
Beyond that, there was one slightly amorphous guideline. Performance level for MLS clubs took precedent, but close calls could be decided by exploits and achievements in other leagues/international play that spoke to a player's overall quality.
All players marked with an asterisk scored easy wins, as they're the only players in league history to have worn their number. Of course, any and all vehement arguments against my choices are very welcome. We wouldn't expect anything less.
1: Tony Meola
Appropriately, this number presents our first tough decision. If we’re going on pure quality, I'd tab Brad Friedel. But as good as Friedel’s one MLS season was, the stay was too short to beat out stiff competition in this goalkeeper's paradise. The same goes for Thomas Ravelli and Walter Zenga. Brad Guzan might be in the discussion if he hadn't worn No. 18 during his Chivas USA years. In the end, this battle comes down to Meola and Kevin Hartman. As much as Hartman excelled, won and accomplished in MLS, I must opt for Meola, the highly-popular US backstop. Frankly, it's not fair I even had to choose between them.
2: Clint Dempsey
This was also a complicated choice. Frankie Hejduk was a formidable (and wildly entertaining) outside back for parts of 12 MLS seasons, and won at least one big trophy at each of his three league stops. Although Mexico legend Claudio Suarez didn't come to America until he was 37, El Emperador helped Chivas USA win their lone Western Conference regular season crown. And yet, I simply couldn't refuse Deuce, even if most of his greatest accomplishments occurred in England.
3: Ike Opara
Welcome to what is basically a three-way shirt tussle between Defender of the Year winners. Some will insist John Doyle should be the pick here, while others may prefer Michael Parkhurst. I had one hell of a time deciding, so I just gave it to the one guy who won the aforementioned award twice. It seemed as good a way to choose as any.
4: Carlos Bocanegra
Michael Bradley was very close. Rafa Márquez could have been if his MLS career even approached the quality of his Barcelona and Mexico exploits. Ultimately, I was left with another agonizing pick from three great defenders. Omar Gonzalez was arguably the league's best center back during his LA Galaxy days, and had the titles and individual awards to prove it. Robin Fraser was one of Major League Soccer's best defenders over its first decade. That I picked Bocanegra over them shows how highly I rate the former USMNT captain.
5: Kyle Beckerman
Guess what, it's yet another tricky question sure to draw multiple different perfectly good answers. Truth be told, in the creation of this article I switched my call several times between three players, and I might forward another name if you asked me about it tomorrow. Thomas Dooley was a USMNT legend made the Best XI after two of his four MLS seasons. However, four seasons in MLS 1.0 probably isn't enough to hang with the long, distinguished careers of Kyle Beckerman and Matt Besler. Each of them also enhanced their case with a solid World Cup 2014 showing. It was an agonizing choice that I could have happily called a tie, but happy ties don't fit the brief. After much deliberation, a very slim edge goes to Beckerman. Hurry up and move along before I change my mind again.
6: Ozzie Alonso
Unlike most of the lower jersey numbers, this was practically a no-brainer. Ronnie Ekelund was the only other player to even enter the conversation, and his tenure of MLS greatness was nowhere near as long as Alonso's.
7: David Villa
This lucky number is apt to set off an endless debate that won't even include world greats such as Roberto Donadoni and Claudio Lopez. Heck, many folks won't even consider Guillermo Barros Schelotto a top contender for unofficial title of best MLS player to wear this shirt. For me, it all came down to a trio of strikers: Robbie Keane, Josef Martinez and Villa. None would be a bad choice by any measure, and Keane might actually win a poll of both media and fans. I just think the Spaniard is the best, most accomplished player of the bunch, and that he had more responsibility in carrying his team's play. And while Keane enjoyed much more championship success, Villa didn't have as much help from his teammates and waged battle in a slightly more competitive MLS iteration. That all said, a few more MLS seasons of comparable quality would certainly enhance the Martinez case.
8: Diego Valeri
I have no doubt many folks will balk at my pick to rally behind Chris Wondolowski. That's fine, but I'll insist the Timbers talisman is the better player. Either Valeri or Wondo makes for a reasonable choice, which says a lot when global greats such as Juninho, Freddie Ljungberg, Earnie Stewart and Hristo Stoichkov also briefly donned this digit.
9: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
An iconic number requires an iconic pick, and there were plenty of worthy options available. We've had Mexico legends in Jorge Campos and Hugo Sanchez. We've had world class strikers such as Obafemi Martins and Wayne Rooney. We've had all-time MLS greats like Juan Pablo Angel and Jaime Moreno (during the league's early years, that is). After a considerable amount of thought, though, it had to be the mighty and mercurial Zlatan.
10: Landon Donovan
Seriously, how does one even make a choice here? The amount of talent that has worn this number in MLS is staggering. You want international icons? Perhaps Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Youri Djorkaeff, Andreas Herzog, Lothar Matthaus or Carlos Valderrama suits your taste. How about USMNT heroes? Try Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos or Roy Wegerle. Maybe you require someone who dominated MLS play for a time, and would rather point to Miguel Almiron, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Marco Etcheverry, Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro, Peter Nowak, Ignacio Piatti or Carlos Vela. A decision had to be made, so I tabbed the guy who ticks all three of those boxes.
Didier Drogba, Eric Wynalda and Roy Lassiter each enjoyed brief spells of outstanding play wearing this number. Javier Morales was Real Salt Lake's genius ideas man for a full decade, which is why he finished a close second. Combining regular season play and the playoffs, Preki rang up an absurd 89 goals and 117 helpers despite the fact MLS didn't start play until he was nearly 33.
12: Jimmy Conrad
This pick may come as a surprise, with plenty of people expecting Jeff Agoos to rule this number. What can I say? Chalk it up to personal preference.
13: Cobi Jones
Clint Mathis and Jermaine Jones have strong cases, and Jordan Morris has the potential to make a race out of this competition someday. He still has a long, long way to go, however, as compared to Galaxy and USMNT legend Cobi Jones. He notched 70 goals and 91 assists while winning seven trophies with the Galaxy and earning a USMNT record 164 caps.
14: Thierry Henry
Here's another number with several "right" answers to the question of who wore it best. Only the sheer greatness of Henry could leave MLS legends Chris Armas, Dwayne de Rosario, Chad Marshall and Steve Ralston, plus international talents like Leonel Alvarez, Javier Hernandez and Stern John, out in the cold.
15: Roy Lassiter
16: Sacha Kljestan
Thanks to his status as one of the league's all-time set-up maestros and the higher ceilings of his best seasons, Kljestan edges out Josh Wolff.
17: Marcelo Balboa
Here's another difficult call, with all sorts of solid arguments to be found. Jozy Altidore, Giovanni Savarese and Diego Serna were all among the hardest strikers to contain during their respective MLS eras. And that doesn't even include El Tri giants Juan Francisco Palencia and Pavel Pardo, who weren't around long enough to measure up to the others' MLS achievements. Let's just say Balboa stands exactly one bicycle kick above the crowd and move on.
18: Kasey Keller
We've arrived at another number dominated by great netminders who spawned a great deal of consideration. With all due respect to the extended excellence of Nick Rimando and Tim Howard's MetroStars days, Keller's three top-notch campaigns in Seattle got the nod.
19: Chris Henderson
Young standouts such as Paxton Pomykal and Milton Valenzuela each have a shot to be the ultimate MLS No. 19 one day. Until then, Henderson gets the spot just ahead of late FC Dallas handyman Bobby Rhine.
20: Taylor Twellman
While an impressive slew of names have been stitched above this number through the years, it really came down to a pair of strikers with St. Louis connections. Brian McBride brought his career to a higher club and international level, but Twellman was the more lethal MLS marksman.
21: Diego Chara
Raul Diaz Arce and Shalrie Joseph also would have been perfectly acceptable choices, but his top-shelf play only extended for a shade over four seasons. Portland's midfield agitator has driven opponents batty for a decade now, and that's why Chara won out.
22: Stuart Holden
Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda each wore No.22, but only for limited portions of their MLS careers. Several talents currently don the number, but like Revolution playmaker Carles Gil, they'll need more service time to bump Holden off this perch.
23: Eddie Pope
For almost any other number in the 20s, both David Beckham and Kei Kamara would have enough bite to be the top dog. The thing is, I consider Pope to be the greatest MLS defender of all-time. So there you have it.
24: Stefan Frei
Honestly, we could throw the Seattle netminder's name in a hat along with Matt Hedges, Lee Nguyen and perhaps even Wade Barrett, and pick one at random. Some folks will agree and others will pitch a fit. For my money, Frei’s 2016 MLS Cup MVP performance makes the difference.
25: Brian Ching
26: Tim Parker
Efrain Alvarez, Cole Bassett and Jaylin Lindsey could yet give the Red Bulls center back a run for the money. For the moment, Parker narrowly heads a list that includes Andy Herron, Joel Lindpere, Bryan Namoff and Santino Quaranta.
27: Boniek García
This was a duel between industrious holding midfielders, with the Dynamo veteran (Garcia) topping Sean Davis on the grounds of a 125-cap Honduras career that included appearances at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
28: Bill Hamid
The D.C. United goalkeeper has worn No. 24 since returning from a short stint in Denmark, but Hamid's first MLS extended stay was more than enough to qualify as the standard bearer for No. 28.
29: Tim Melia
For the second number in a row, we have a rather complicated pick 'em. Roman Torres has an MLS Cup-clinching spot kick and some international heroics on his side. Melia has a Best XI season, a 2015 U.S. Open Cup final Man of the Match and a Player of the Tournament from the 2017 edition of that same tourney. Let's go with the Sporting Kansas City custodian, who has spent longer at or near the top of his position in MLS.
30: Alexi Lalas
The big redhead only played with this number during his final few seasons, but those glorious Galaxy days put him well above the No. 30 crowd.
31: Luis Robles
Had Bastian Schweinsteiger starred in Chicago a little longer (or at least spent more of his Fire days in midfield), the overall quality factor would have handed him this honorary shirt. As is, the Inter Miami 'keeper is our guy. Few netminders in league history can match Robles' 47.5 win percentage and he should reach the all-time top five in shutouts before he's done.
32: Bobby Boswell
Some promising back line prospects currently wear this number, but nobody in league history has repped it anywhere near as well as Boswell did during his 12-year MLS career.
33: Aaron Long
34: Tyrone Marshall
The former Jamaica international — who celebrated two MLS Cup wins, two Supporters Shields and a trio of U.S. Open Cup titles during a 14-year MLS career spent with five clubs — was an easy pick here despite the fact he wore No. 14 for all but his final two seasons.
35: Bruno Menezes
36: Luis Martins
If he keeps this number, I'd bet young Chicago left back Andre Reynolds II will be the king here before too long. For now, Martins will keep the No. 36 throne warm for his role in Sporting KC's back line.
37: Jelle Van Damme
Some might argue that Montreal forward Maxi Urruti and his 53 career MLS goals should be the choice, but for now I'm going with the former Galaxy skipper. Feel free to "@ me" all you like, I can take it.
38: Kai Herdling
39: Kenny Stamatopoulos
40: Renzo Zambrano
41: Frank Klopas
The Greece-born former US international only wore this number during his short Chicago Fire tenure, but should be the safe choice here for a while. Interestingly, no less than four current back-up netminders don this number.
42: Brian White
Unless White suddenly changes shirt numbers, expect the Red Bulls forward to make this a tough hill to climb in the coming years.
43: Justin Portillo
44: Omar Gonzalez
Gonzalez has only worn this number since joining Toronto FC last summer. Still, considering his instant impact at BMO Field and the quality of his career, it's enough to place him ahead of Dario Sala and Axel Sjoberg. Like I said, the judging criteria is a bit nebulous.
45: Nouhou Tolo
While it's true the thoroughly entertaining Sounders left back now pulls on No. 5, Nouhou ably sported this number during the club's first MLS Cup triumph in 2016.
46: Brett Levis
47: Hassan Ndam
Now an FC Cincinnati man, the center back wins out here by virtue of one strong start for the Red Bulls back in 2018.
48: Darren O'Dea
50: Theo Bair
51: Adrian Serioux
At this point, you may start noticing that a crazy number of our honorees play or played for either Toronto FC or Vancouver.
53: Ali Adnan
54: Simon Colyn
55: Keaton Parks
56: Georges Mukumbilwa
With only nine league minutes on his résumé, the young Vancouver defender wins the prize for owning his number with the least amount of pitch time.
58: Cesar Romero
59: Sergio Garcia
Ladies and gentlemen, I present the only two Chivas USA players honored in the list (side note: No. 89 also played for the now-defunct club, but only wore that particular number while with Chicago).
60: Jeff Parke
62: Michael Murillo
66: Alain Sutter
The Switzerland winger first became known to American fans while shining at the 1994 World Cup. One of my favorite players even before he joined the Dallas Burn, I was completely bummed when a freak injury cut his MLS stay short after only 28 games.
67: Alphonso Davies
One sparkling season for Vancouver and the subsequent move to Bayern Munich practically constitutes a dare for anyone else to give this number a try.
70: Cristian Penilla
71: Diego Serna
The former Miami Fusion goal monster only scored once in eight games for the MetroStars while wearing this reverse number of his old No. 17.
74: Tom Barlow
Barlow, a youngster with a bright future, has the chance to build his CV before anyone else gets the nod.
75: Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal
Reference the above, but slot Kuzain’s name in.
77: Andy Williams
This was a somewhat tricky call, since Daniel Royer is a bona fide double-digit scorer for the Red Bulls with a Supporters Shield to his credit, but has played 94MLS matches. Williams, conversely, appeared in 332 regular-season contests for six MLS teams. One might consider it an unfair advantage, but he accomplished a lot. He helped Chicago win a Supporters Shield/Open Cup double, was an important cog in Real Salt Lake's 2009 title run while his wife battled cancer and stands 10th on the league's all-time assist chart with 86. That's good enough to earn him the No. 77 throne, at least for now.
78: Aurelien Collin
Though Collin's the only man to don this jersey number to date, an MLS Cup MVP award and a Best XI nod means the Frenchman won't be easily bested.
80: Fernando Cardenas
Two goals and two helpers in nine games for the Revs during the 2012 season was enough for the wide midfielder to win out here.
81: Marvin Chavez
The longtime Honduras winger notched 13 helpers for the Quakes' 2012 Supporters Shield side.
84: Clint Mathis
Mathis’ best MLS days definitely came wearing other numbers, but his two years with Real Salt Lake had no competition.
87: Tosaint Ricketts
88: Alan Prampin
The former Tampa Bay forward's two strong seasons were enough to beat out Kwadwo Poku and a couple of decent netminders in Bill Gaudette and Jonny Walker.
89: Yamith Cuesta
90: Marc Rzatkowski
91: Oniel Fisher
Fisher easily topped a pair of players to rule his number.
92: Kemar Lawrence
See the above, but apply it for Lawrence.
94: Jimmy Medranda
96: Auro Jr.
98: Mamadou "Futty" Danso
99: Bradley Wright-Phillips
On the face of it, this would come down to the former Red Bulls sniper and Jaime Moreno. However, Moreno did a sizable amount of his damage during the D.C. dynasty days in the league's early years sporting No. 9. Therefore, it's Wright-Phillips all the way.