The writing on the wall has gradually been materializing for a few weeks now. It was still startling, though, when the official club release hit inboxes late Wednesday night:
GIOVINCO SOLD TO AL-HILAL FC
One of the best players in the history of Major League Soccer, by any measure, is departing, and leaves behind a legacy that will be revered – and debated – in Toronto and across the league. The Atomic Ant did truly incredible work over the past four years, leading TFC to five trophies and racking up gaudy individual scoring numbers. But where does he rank among the all-time great Designated Players?
It’s no simple reckoning. But here’s my top 5.
Note: Similar to what my colleague Sam Stejskal did with his fine ranking of the top 10 DPs of all-time two years ago, I’ve limited consideration to players who’ve worn DP status for all or nearly all of their MLS careers. Alas, that excludes several extremely talented stars who earned a DP deal by virtue of their performance in the league.
5. Diego Valeri
Stats: 68 goals, 65 assists in 180 reg-season apps (173 starts), 6g/7a in 17 postseason apps
Major trophies: 2015 MLS Cup, 2018 Western Conference
Honors: 2017 MLS MVP, four-time All-Star, three-time Best XI
Of these five, this was the toughest spot to settle – see below for my honorable mentions – but “San Valeri” edges it, for both the volume and variety of his contributions to the Portland Timbers. Contributing vision, spirit and steady attacking production, the Rose City’s favorite Argentinean led PTFC to the first league title in club history in 2015 and took them back to MLS Cup last year.
Crucially, he’s also embraced Stumptown and its unique soccer culture with both arms. Valeri connects with fans, takes part in community outreach programs and often attends Portland Thorns NWSL matches with his wife Florencia and their young daughter Connie. Safe to say he’s changed the course of both Timbers and MLS history from his first day in town.
4. David Villa
Stats: 77 goals, 26 assists in 117 reg-season apps (109 starts), 3g/0a in 7 postseason apps
Major trophies: N/A
Honors: 2016 MLS MVP, four-time MLS All-Star
Pop quiz, and no cheating: Who was the first-ever player in your club’s history? New York City FC fans can answer this one for decades to come, because it was Villa, and over the first four years of the team’s existence he put it on his back – and the world map – with relentless contributions of skill, personality and hard work.
El Guaje arrived a World Cup, UEFA Champions League and La Liga champion, yet never shirked from the massive effort required, both on and off the field, to get NYCFC off the ground. His strike rate has few equals in MLS history. He harried and pressed opposing defenses like a madman. He lifted his team from expansion punchline to perennial playoff qualifiers. He proudly served as the face of the franchise. And still had the wherewithal to produce magical moments.
3. David Beckham
Stats: 18 goals, 40 assists in 98 reg-season apps (91 starts), 0g/8a in 17 postseason apps
Major trophies: 2011, 2012 MLS Cups, 2009 Western Conference, 2010, 2011 Supporters Shields
Honors: Three-time MLS All-Star, 2011 MLS Best XI
Let’s raise a toast to the legacy of the OG DP. The Designated Player concept was hatched with Goldenballs in mind, so much so that it was widely known as “the Beckham rule” in its infancy, and after a rough start to life in MLS the English legend showed why the LA Galaxy spent all that money and effort to get him into their kit.
Over his six seasons in LA, Beckham changed global perceptions of MLS, helping it evolve from a “retirement league” to a prosperous competition with real appeal to top-shelf talent. That wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t delivered on the pitch, though: By the time he moved on, Becks was a central cog in one of the most dominant teams in MLS annals.
2. Sebastian Giovinco
Stats: 68 goals, 52 assists in 114 reg-season apps (111 starts), 5g/5a in 11 postseason apps
Major trophies: 2017 MLS Cup, 2016 Eastern Conference, 2017 Supporters' Shield, 2016, 2017, 2018 Canadian Championships
Honors: 2015 MLS MVP, 2015 MLS Golden Boot, three-time MLS Best XI, four-time MLS All-Star, 2018 Concacaf Men's Best XI, 2018 Concacaf Champions League Golden Ball
While Beckham entered MLS with one of the league’s flagship clubs – LA had already won two MLS Cups, two Supporters' Shields, two U.S. Open Cups and a Concacaf Champions Cup title – Giovinco arrived at a basketcase. Toronto FC were a bad, sad joke for most of their pre-Seba history, and when he signed on from Juventus few imagined the about-face that would unfold, peaking in the unprecedented 2017 treble campaign.
Diminutive, driven, audaciously skillful, the Atomic Ant was ridiculously effective in statistical terms, though that only tells half the story. Because the Italian routinely left spectators breathless with his exhilarating work in the attacking third, humbling defenders with his quick feet and cold-blooded finishing nous. He will be missed.
1. Robbie Keane
Stats: 83 goals, 45 assists in 125 reg-season apps (119 starts), 10g/6a in 21 postseason apps
Major trophies: 2011, 2012, 2014 MLS Cups, 2011 Supporters' Shield
Honors: 2014 MLS MVP, four-time MLS Best XI, 2015 MLS All-Star
King Keano had been a nomad before his arrival in LA, appearing for nine clubs across Europe. But he made Dignity Health Sports Park a very happy home, racking up incredible scoring numbers over six seasons and spearheading one of the few true dynasties MLS has ever seen.
The Irishman arrived as the de facto successor to Beckham, and managed to be even better in terms of productivity and number of league titles. Irascible, combustible, demanding, his clever movement bedeviled defenders and his scowling visage in match play epitomized the Galaxy’s unrelenting drive for success.
Josef Martinez, ATL: 50 goals, 7 assists in 54 reg-season apps (51 starts), 4g/1a in 6 postseason apps; 2018 MLS Cup winner, 2018 MLS Golden Boot winner, MLS single-season scoring record breaker
Thierry Henry, RBNY: 51 goals, 42 assists in 122 reg-season apps (118 starts),1g/7a in 13 postseason apps; 2013 Supporters’ Shield, three-time MLS Best XI, four-time MLS All-Star
Nicolas Lodeiro, SEA: 19 goals, 36 assists in 73 reg-season apps (all starts), 5g/2a in 13 postseason apps; 2016 MLS Cup winner, 2017 Western Conference winner
Federico Higuain, CLB: 54 goals, 58 assists in 179 reg-season apps (191 starts), 4g/5a in 14 postseason apps; 2015 Eastern Conference winner
Mauro Diaz, DAL: 23 goals, 44 assists in 109 reg-season apps (84 starts), 0g/5a in 6 postseason apps; 2016 Supporters’ Shield winner, 2016 U.S. Open Cup winner, 2016 MLS Best XI