What makes an MLS legend?
Tom Brady, with 17 NFL seasons under his belt, cemented his legendary status in his sport with a fifth Super Bowl title back in February. Sidney Crosby, who has been around for over a decade, is continuing to make his case in the NHL. And LeBron James is still in the process of sculpting his NBA legend.
Similarly, the “MLS legend” designation should be narrowly-tailored to solely include those whose achievements denote “all-time” status. And for me, the MLS legend moniker hinges in large part on longevity.
There’s a reason Derek Jeter, whose number was recently retired, is among Major League Baseball’s all-time greats. Above all else, he did his thing with the New York Yankees for two decades – a distinguishing aspect of his career given his ability to maintain greatness with remarkable consistency.
And now that Major League Soccer has been around longer than Jeter’s playing career (1995-2014), it’s old enough to have its own legends, but I'd argue that group is limited to nine individuals. And keep in mind club legends – players woven into the fabric of their local cities – don't automatically transcend to become league legends, whose achievements earn them league-wide exclusivity.
I use four traits in designating legendary status: (1) longevity, (2) league titles, (3) individual honors and (4) individual statistics. Those criteria help remove feelings from the conversation and dwindle the pool to the following nine players/coaches whose careers were simply a cut above:
The six-time MLS Cup champ and all-time leading goal-scorer stands alone among Major League Soccer’s all-time greats. Donovan’s name recognition transcends every other long-time MLSer who was groomed in North America. His encyclopedia of domestic achievements is so sizable it has multiple volumes.
Major League Soccer’s Vince Lombardi will be remembered just as much for his longevity and knack for managing big personalities as for the five MLS Cup titles he won over 14 seasons — which says something. There might never be another MLS manager like him.
Dwayne De Rosario
Canada’s all-time leading scorer was named to six MLS Best XIs, trailing only Landon Donovan (7) in the category. He also won four MLS Cups during a 14-year MLS career. And De Rosario also accomplished a feat that won’t be repeated, winning MLS MVP in 2011 after twice being traded that season. His shake-and-bake goal celebration is firmly planted in the minds of those who watched him score world-class goals for more than a decade.
The first MLS player to reach 100 goals and 100 assists, Moreno is routinely evoked alongside the league’s all-time great strikers. He’s also among the most accomplished, claiming four MLS Cups with D.C. United. Amid perpetual player movement in an ever-growing league, goal-scorers like Moreno, who played 14 seasons at RFK Stadium, are becoming a rarity.
There wasn’t a better player in Major League Soccer from 2012 to 2015, when Keane claimed four MLS Best XI nods, a league MVP award and three MLS Cup championships. This is a case where the numbers (83 goals and 45 assists in just 119 starts) outweigh the fact Keane featured through just six seasons with the Galaxy — perhaps the league’s last true dynasty.
You can’t argue with five MLS Cup rings, or that Agoos is a legend to those who remember MLS before the league’s expansion boom. He was selected to the league’s All-Star team eight times while being named to three Best XIs.
The 2001 Defender of the Year had contrasting qualities of being both hard-as-nails and technically gifted with his left peg. He was a member of the 1996-97 D.C. teams that are forever etched in MLS lore.
The Bolivian playmaker was an MLS MVP finalist in three of the league’s first four seasons, winning the award in 1998. Four straight Best XI nominations were the byproduct of winning three MLS Cups.
Etcheverry produced 66 assists through his first 97 appearances for D.C., making him arguably the greatest playmaker in league history. That he played across eight seasons makes him worthy of “legendary” distinction.
Steady Eddie provided Major League Soccer with its first iconic moment: A sudden-death goal that gave D.C. United the league’s first title in 1996. His rain-soaked header at flooded Foxboro Stadium will live on forever.
But that was just the start of Pope’s legendary MLS career — he earned Best XI honors four times, while winning three MLS Cups over a dozen seasons.
One of three players to make 400-plus MLS appearances, Hartman’s win total (180) is second all-time to Nick Rimando. He also sits second in shutouts (89). Hartman claimed two MLS Cups with the LA Galaxy after winning Goalkeeper of the Year in 1999. He played parts of 17 seasons with four different clubs.
On the cusp
He’ll have “legendary” status bestowed whenever he decides to retire. Rimando’s current stat line is ridiculous: 432 matches, 185 wins, 131 shutouts and 1,479 saves — which makes him the all-time leader in all four categories. Oh, and somehow penalty kick-takers have converted just 63 percent of attempts against him.
A pair of MLS Cups (2004, ’09) gives him the best goalkeeping resume in MLS history. And that’s before pointing out a seemingly endless string of electrifying saves.
Closing in on "legendary"
A pair of MLS Cups (as a bench player in 2006 and 2007) and two Golden Boots aren’t enough to lift Wondolowski alongside names like Moreno, DeRo and Keane. But if he becomes the league's all-time scoring king and adds another league title, he joins my elite group.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Schmid to Major League Soccer’s godfather, Bruce Arena, but titles ultimately define a manager. Arena has three more than Schmid, who might not be done with his MLS Cup pursuits.
10 who missed the cut
The only two-time MLS MVP in league history, but he has just one title. The “Preki Chop” is, however, stuff of legends.
Arguably the greatest assist man in MLS history falls outside my legends list after having never won an MLS championship.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto
Just four seasons in Columbus — and one MLS Cup — isn’t long enough to sit alongside the all-time greats.
Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane were the legends in LA. Dunivant, who has five rings, played a supporting role.
Worthy of an honorable mention as a role player who helped his clubs claim five MLS Cups — one fewer than Donovan.
Known more for his time at Fulham than in MLS, where his output was solid, but not historic.
It’s difficult for a defensive midfielder to become more than a club legend. It really requires multiple titles, of which Armas has one.
A long career, full of MLS titles and accolades. However, Davis’ single-season output never reached historic or legendary levels.
The six-time All-Star and three-time MLS Cup winner didn’t put up the numbers. Surprising he only scored double-digit goals in three of his 12 seasons in the league.
One of three defenders twice named Defender of the Year. Yet, Fraser never won an MLS Cup.
What do you think? Who do you consider an MLS legend? What do active players or coaches still need to do to get there? Let us know in the comments below.
Kurt Larson is an MLSsoccer.com contributor who covers Toronto FC for the Toronto Sun and the Canadian national teams for Postmedia.