Messi, Zlatan, and 5 of the biggest stars that moved to the MLS from Europe  

The MLS has been blessed with many stars who have moved from Europe to the US after legendary careers. From Ballon d’Or winners to Champions League winners, some supreme talent has made the switch across the Atlantic.

Major League Soccer actually has strict rules regarding international players, as well as a salary cap. However, the “Designated player” rule can allow US teams to sign stars from abroad without salary cap restrictions. Many of the legends on this list joined MLS sides as designated players as a result.

So many figures that have lit up football in the past 10 years or so have headed to the US at the end of their careers. Honourable mentions include Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, and Frank Lampard, who all showed out for New York City FC.

Meanwhile, LA Galaxy has a storied past of stars coming from Europe to the MLS. For example, Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane combined in Los Angeles in the late 2010s. Additionally, Wayne Rooney enjoyed America so much that he has since continued into management for D.C. United.

But what other big names have plied their trade in Major League Soccer?

#1: David Beckham – LA Galaxy

It seems fitting to start this list with the man who launched the MLS into the global football sphere. David Beckham sent shockwaves around the world when he joined LA Galaxy in 2007.

After leaving Real Madrid, the England captain made 124 appearances for the Galaxy, scoring 20 times. His presence also helped the Californian side win back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012.

Of course, from here, Beckham has since gone on to play an integral part in Inter Miami’s arrival in the League, too. And that has gone okay so far, considering who they have recently signed.

Nevertheless, on the pitch, “Becks” was the trailblazer of stars moving from Europe to the MLS.

#2: Thierry Henry – New York Red Bulls

Revered for his prolific time at Arsenal, iconic forward Thierry Henry actually finished his playing career in America. The 1998 World Cup winner joined New York Red Bulls in 2010, staying there until his retirement in 2015.

Henry was undeniably a standout performer with New York, registering 52 goals and 42 assists (94 goal contributions) from 135 appearances. He was part of the Red Bulls team that won the 2013 Supporters’ Shield, contributing 10 goals that campaign.

The Arsenal legend frequently wowed supporters with his fantastic technique and sublime finishing skills. Even in his later years, Henry proved his star quality repeatedly for US audiences.

#3: Kaka – Orlando City

One of the few Ballon d’Or winners to ever play in America, Kaka is definitely one of the biggest stars to switch from Europe to the MLS.

The earlier part of the Brazilian’s career – at AC Milan – had been nothing short of incredible. Champions League triumphs, Scudettos, and individual accolades all came the way of the midfielder.

Most notably, in 2007, Kaka won the Ballon d’Or as well.

However, an ill-fated move to Real Madrid saw injuries take their toll. Then, following a brief return to Milan and Sao Paulo, Kaka headed to America to try Major League Soccer. Here, he had the honour of being Orlando City’s first-ever MLS player.

They were an expansion team when Kaka signed – and he became their first captain, too.

The iconic maestro then sealed his place in the club’s history by scoring their first-ever MLS goal. Kaka struck late on to give Orlando a draw in their inaugural MLS match vs New York City.

From here, he notched another 25 goals across 78 appearances for the club.

#4: Zlatan Ibrahimovic – LA Galaxy

His time in America may have been short, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic left a lasting impression on the US fanbase. From outlandish interviews to spectacular goals, Zlatan was always in the headlines throughout his stint with LA Galaxy.

The striker moved to Los Angeles after leaving Man United, where a serious knee injury had dampened his time in England. Fortunately, though, Zlatan was still able to shine in the MLS.

His spectacular debut saw the Swedish international score a brace in a 4-3 win over local rivals, LAFC. From this point on, Ibrahimovic was almost unstoppable. He left Los Angeles to re-join AC Milan after 53 goals from just 58 appearances.

In his own words from his parting press conference (via GiveMeSport): “I came, I saw, I conquered. Thank you, LA Galaxy, for making me feel alive again. To the Galaxy fans – you wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues… Now go back to watching baseball.”


#5: Lionel Messi – Inter Miami

Finally, rounding out this list of five stars who went from Europe to the MLS is the most recent player – and arguably the greatest.

Lionel Messi exited PSG to join Inter Miami at the end of the 2022/23 campaign. Having finally won the World Cup in 2022, the formidable attacker has decided to end his playing days in Europe.

But if you thought that the Argentine was going to kick back and relax in Miami, you may be wrong. He has hit the ground running, scoring a fantastic injury-time winner on his debut. Messi has since followed this up with a two-goal performance in his first start for the club, too.

Will he be able to lead Inter Miami to their first MLS silverware? Fans will have to wait, but one thing is certain – he will have eyes on him whenever he takes to the pitch in America.

Featured image credit: Getty