Alessandro Nesta’s arrival at the Montreal Impact means he will join an elite group of MLS players: those who have lifted the World Cup with their country. Only five other players in MLS’ 17-year history have lifted the World Cup, with Nesta joining Thierry Henry as the only current MLS player to have won world soccer’s ultimate prize.
And let’s not forget, winning a World Cup is no guarantee of MLS success. Just ask Branco (who picked up three red cards in a handful of games for New York) or Denílson (who was MLS’ first big Designated Player bust, scoring just one goal in eight appearances for FC Dallas). However, a handful of players have come in and showcased their talents to varying degrees of success.
While no World Cup winner has hoisted an MLS Cup (four out of the five to come to the league so far have played for New York), most of them have managed to transform the fortunes of their team and increase recognition of the league worldwide. Here are the three that have found the most success in both areas:
Lothar Matthäus, MetroStars (2000)
Though Branco was the first World Cup-winner to feature for an MLS side, he didn’t bring to the table the name recognition the captain of 1990 World Cup winners offered. Joining the MetroStars at the age of 39, Matthäus was coming off an illustrious and trophy-filled career with a résumé that featured the likes of Bayern Munich and Internazionale, not to mention 150 appearances for the German national team, the most international appearances by any male player at the time.
However, the midfielder was unable to translate his long list of achievements into MLS success, making just 16 appearances in the 2000 season. Though his regular season was nothing to write home about, Matthäus did redeem himself, coming good in the playoffs as the MetroStars made a run to the semifinals, narrowly falling to eventual runners-up Chicago Fire.
That postseason ended up being the last games Matthäus played, as he opted to call it quits as he approached his 40th birthday. Though his short stint in MLS was decidedly mixed, his presence in the young league certainly increased its worldwide recognition, a big boon in the pre-Designated Player era.
Youri Djorkaeff, New York Red Bulls (2005-06)
Turning down higher offers and opting for the allure of New York, Djorkaeff joined the Red Bulls in 2005 to become the third World Cup-winning player to join the growing league.
An abundantly skilled attacking midfielder who enjoyed success at nearly every club he played, from Monaco to Internazionale to Bolton Wanderers, the 1998 World Cup winner and 2000 European Championship winner turned in two solid MLS seasons in the twilight of his career. He notched 12 goals and 11 assists in 40 appearances, pulling the strings in a New York attack that shared the league lead for goals scored in 2005 and helping the team to the playoffs in each of his seasons in the league.
Though an ankle injury forced him to call it quits on his playing career at age 38 after New York’s ouster from the 2006 MLS Cup Playoffs, he will be remembered fondly by Red Bulls fans for his class on and off the ball.
Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls (2010-present)
An up-and-coming talent when France head coach Aime Jacquet called him into France’s 1998 World Cup squad, the 21-year-old did not disappoint, finishing the tournament as France’s leading scorer with three goals. And it would only get better from there for the youngster.
GOAL: Henry jukes and finishes from edge of the area
After an illustrious career with Arsenal, Henry, one of the top strikers in Premier League history, moved to Barcelona. Following his stint in Spain, he opted to come to MLS, much like Djorkaeff lured by the prospect of living in New York (though it also took DP money to seal the deal). And though he started slowly, scoring just two goals in his first half-season, he has now established himself as the World Cup-winner who has found the most success in MLS.
Though they disappointed in the playoffs, the Red Bulls have been two-for-two in reaching the postseason since Henry’s arrival. He established himself as one of the league’s top strikers in 2011, his 14 goals keeping him in the Golden Boot race until the penultimate game of the season, and his torrid start to 2012, where he totaled nine goals, was only halted by a hamstring injury.
While Henry still carries an unenviable burden in his quest to guide New York to that ever-elusive MLS Cup, his pedigree certainly suggests he is capable of doing just that. Should he succeed, he will certainly cement his place as the best World Cup-winning player to play in MLS, if not one of the best strikers to grace the league.
Other World Cup winners to play in MLS: Denílson (FC Dallas, 2007), Branco (NY/NJ MetroStars, 1997). Two of Brazil’s title-winning squad in 1994, Zinho (2005-08) and Romário (2006), played in the USA with Miami FC of the USL First Division.