The biggest overseas stars ever to play in North America

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 20: Lionel Messi #10 of Inter Miami looks on before the match between Toronto FC and Inter Miami CF at DRV PNK Stadium on September 20, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
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Top-level football in the USA and Canada has been graced by some of the game's all-time greats over the years.

The influx of elite European and South American talent into North America began with the birth of the old NASL in 1968 – and another wave came as MLS got underway in 1994.

Here, in FourFourTwo's humble opinion, are the biggest overseas stars ever to play in the NASL and MLS...

33. Peter Lorimer (Toronto Blizzard, Vancouver Whitecaps)

Peter Lorimer

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A two-time First Division champion and once Leeds United’s youngest ever player, Peter Lorimer headed to Canada in 1979, signing for the Toronto Blizzard.

After a stint back in West Yorkshire with York City, the distinguished Scottish midfielder returned to the Blizzard before a longer spell with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Lorimer made 127 NASL appearances in all, re-joining Leeds in 1983.

32. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)

Robbie Keane

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Robbie Keane had only just turned 31 when he made his debut for MLS’ LA Galaxy, so he had plenty still to give – and how he proved it, scoring 83 league goals in five-and-a-bit seasons with the Californians.

The cartwheeling Irish icon starred in three title-winning campaigns for the Galaxy, the last of them in 2014 as captain.

31. Teofilo Cubillas (Fort Lauderdale Strikers)

Teofilo Cubillas

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Peru’s greatest player of all time, Teofilo Cubillas (pictured above right) spent most the last decade of his career in the USA, joining NASL outfit Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1979.

A gifted set-piece specialist, Cubillas notched 72 goals in six NASL seasons over two spells – including a seven-minute hat-trick against the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1981.

30. Carlos Valderrama (Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion, Colorado Rapids)

Carlos Valderrama

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Purveyor of the finest perm in football history, legendary Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama saw out his career in MLS, winning the 1996 Supporters’ Shield (awarded to the team with the best regular season record) with the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

Stints with the Miami Fusion and Colorado Rapids followed for ‘El Pibe’ – who continued to represent his country until the 1998 World Cup.

29. Geoff Hurst (Seattle Sounders)

Geoff Hurst

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The Seattle Sounders signed a piece of history in 1976 when they brought in Geoff Hurst, scorer of the first ever World Cup final hat-trick to secure glory for England 10 years earlier.

By then in the twilight of his career, Hurst still proved a valuable acquisition by netting eight goals in 23 NASL outings for the Sounders, helping them reach the play-offs.

28. Wim Suurbier (Los Angeles Aztecs, San Jose Earthquakes)

Wim Suurbier, Netherlands

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Imperious right-back of the all-time great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 70s, Wim Suurbier had spells Stateside with the Los Angeles Aztecs and San Jose Earthquakes.

By the late 80s, the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finalist had hung up his boots and gone into coaching – only to come out of retirement as player-manager of the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ indoor team.

27. Ruud Krol (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Willem van Hanegem of Feyenoord (R), Ruud Krol of Ajax during the Dutch Eredivisie match between Feyenoord and Ajax Amsterdam on october 27, 1974 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

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Wim Suurbier’s left-sided defensive counterpart for club and country, Ruud Krol left Ajax for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 1980.

Also a 1974 and 1978 World Cup finalist, Krol spent just one season with the Whitecaps – where he lined up alongside a young Bruce Grobbelaar – returning to Europe with Napoli the following year.

26. Roberto Bettega (Toronto Blizzard)

Roberto Bettega

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A legend at Juventus, where he won seven Serie A titles, Roberto Bettega made the move to Canada midway through the 1983 NASL season.

There, the 42-cap Italy striker helped the Toronto Blizzard to third and second-placed finishes in the league’s Eastern Division, reaching the Soccer Bowl (the NASL’s title game) on both occasions.

25. Hugo Sanchez (San Diego Sockers, Dallas Burn)

Hugo Sanchez

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Loaned out to the San Diego Sockers of the NASL not long after starting out at UNAM in his native Mexico, the great Hugo Sanchez returned to the USA at the end of his career, turning out for MLS' Dallas Burn.

The latter move made Real Madrid legend Sanchez the first non-American to play outdoor football in both the NASL and MLS.

24. Rob Rensenbrink (Portland Timbers)

Rob Rensenbrink

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Another prominent member of the masterful Dutch ‘Total Football’ team of the 70s, Rob Rensenbrink departed Anderlecht for the Portland Timbers as he began to wind down his career in 1980.

There, the winger scored six goals in 18 NASL appearances, playing with the likes of Clyde Best and Willie Donachie.

23. Vava (San Diego Toros)

Vava

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One of the deadliest strikers of the 50s and 60s, Vava fired Brazil to victory at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups, sharing the Golden Boot at the latter tournament.

After club spells in his homeland, Spain and Mexico, he joined the San Diego Toros in 1968 and starred in the NASL’s inaugural season.

22. David Villa (New York City)

David Villa

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Among the greatest players to grace MLS, David Villa goes down as the best to pull on the shirt of New York City in their short history so far.

A world and European champion with Spain, and a Champions League winner with Barcelona, Villa banged in 77 league goals in four years at NYCFC, wearing the captain’s armband throughout his stay.

21. Hristo Stoichkov (Chicago Fire, D.C. United)

Hristo Stoichkov

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Another great Barcelona goalscorer who crossed the pond late in their career, Hristo Stoichkov bagged 22 MLS goals across stints with the Chicago Fire and D.C. United during the early 00s.

Bulgaria’s best player of all time, Stoichkov lifted the 2000 U.S. Open Cup with Chicago, as well as reaching that year’s championship game.

20. Sergio Busquets (Inter Miami)

Sergio Busquets

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The epitome of calmness at the base of Barcelona and Spain’s midfields for many years, 2010 World Cup winner Sergio Busquets left Barca – until then, his only club – for Inter Miami in 2023.

Within two months, the metronomic veteran had helped the Florida club to silverware with victory in the Leagues Cup.

19. Johan Neeskens (New York Cosmos)

Johan Neeskens

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Steadfast midfield foil to Johan Cruyff for the Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona, Johan Neeskens left the latter in 1979 to join the iconic New York Cosmos.

The 1974 and 1978 World Cup runner-up made 94 appearances and won two NASL titles with the Cosmos, where his teammates included Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto.

18. Andrea Pirlo (New York City)

Andrea Pirlo

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The mesmerising Andrea Pirlo left Juventus to wrap up his career with a two-and-a-half season stint at New York City, featuring 60 times in MLS.

Italy’s Panenka-taking, 2006 World Cup-winning midfield maestro helped New York to the play-offs in 2016 and 2017, as well as playing in the 2016 MLS All-Star game.

17. Lothar Matthaus (New York/New Jersey MetroStars)

Lothar Matthaus

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Lothar Matthaus’ career was so never-ending that he just had to fit in a spell in the States – and Germany’s 1990 World-Cup winning captain did just that after concluding his second spell with Bayern Munich in 2000.

The evergreen midfielder made 16 appearances for the clunkily named New York/New Jersey MetroStars, helping them to the MLS Eastern Division title.

16. Frank Lampard (New York City)

Frank Lampard

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The most recent of the trinity of premier English midfielders to ply their trade in MLS this century, Frank Lampard enjoyed a brief but goal-laden stint with New York City before retiring.

Chelsea’s greatest player of all time found the net 15 times in 29 league outings for NYFC, being named a 2015 MLS All-Star.

15. Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy)

Steven Gerrard

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Liverpool fans must have thought Steven Gerrard would never leave after he turned down Chelsea in the wake of the Reds’ miraculous 2005 Champions League triumph – but that day did come eventually, when the Merseyside giants’ inspirational skipper move on to LA Galaxy in 2015.

Gerrard admitted that he found it difficult to adjust to the MLS’ long-distance away days, but he was still named an All-Star in his first season.

14. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 23: Zlatan Ibrahimovic #9 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his penalty kick goal during the Los Angeles Galaxy's MLS match against Seattle Sounders at the StubHub Center on September 23, 2018 in Carson, California. Los Angeles Galaxy won the match 3-0(Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 2018 debut for the LA Galaxy wasn’t too shabby: the enigmatic Swedish icon came off the bench to bag a match-winning brace – a 45-yard half-volley and a 91st-minute headed winner – as his new team fought back to beat local rivals LAFC 4-3 in the first ever ‘El Trafico’ derby.

That set the tone for Zlatan’s brief but utterly prolific MLS career: he racked up 52 goals in 56 games.

13. Gordon Banks (Fort Lauderdale Strikers)

Gordon Banks

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Top goalkeepers don’t seem to play in North America – the nature of the position means they can last longer in Europe’s elite leagues – but one of the very best did: heroic custodian of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team, Gordon Banks.

Losing his sight in one eye in a car accident had forced Banks to retire in 1973 – but he pulled the gloves back on four years later, going on to make 37 NASL appearances for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

12. Wayne Rooney (D.C. United)

BRONX, NY - MARCH 10: Wayne Rooney #9 of D.C. United walks off the pitch after the 2019 Major League Soccer Home Opener match between New York City FC and DC United at Yankee Stadium on March 10, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York. The match ended in a tie with a score of 0 to 0. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

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After a brief second spell with boyhood club Everton, Wayne Rooney upped sticks and crossed the Atlantic to join D.C. United in the summer of 2018.

Manchester United's record goalscorer (and, at the time, England's) went on to net 23 times in 48 MLS outings for the 'other' United – and he even returned as manager in 2022 (that didn't go so well).

11. Bobby Moore (San Antonio Thunder, Seattle Sounders)

Bobby Moore

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Bobby Moore got a taste for the NASL when he joined the San Antonio Thunder on loan from Fulham in 1976 – and he must have liked it, because he crossed the pond permanently two years later, signing for the Seattle Sounders.

Described by Pele as the toughest defender he ever faced, England’s immortal 1966 World Cup-winning captain even turned out against the Three Lions, for Team America in the 1976 Bicentennial Cup Tournament.

10. George Best (Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, San Jose Earthquakes)

George Best

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The inimitable George Best spent the first 11 years of his career earning legendary status at Manchester United; he spreads the final nine across 10 clubs in six countries, including three in the USA.

Northern Ireland’s greatest sportsman had two stints with the Los Angeles Aztecs, and one apiece with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes, notching 54 goals in 139 games overall.

9. Carlos Alberto (New York Cosmos, California Surf)

Carlos Alberto

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Among the very best defenders ever to play the game, 1970 World Cup-winning Brazil skipper Carlos Alberto closed out his career with spells on the East and West Coasts of the USA.

Inducted into America’s National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2003, O Capitao made his farewell appearance in an exhibition match for the New York Cosmos against Flamengo – the last club he represented in his homeland.

8. Gerd Muller (Fort Lauderdale Strikers)

Gerd Muller

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Gerd Muller was one of the most clinical finishers in football history, so it was only natural that he eventually played for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

A record of 38 goals in 71 NASL games was rather leisurely by Der Bomber’s extraordinary standards, but he certainly left his mark on the league – firing the Strikers to the 1980 Soccer Bowl.

7. Eusebio (Boston Minutemen, Toronto Metros-Croatia, Las Vegas Quicksilvers)

Eusebio

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A decade on from picking up the Ballon d’Or, became one of the NASL’s biggest superstars to date, beginning his North American adventure with the Boston Minutemen.

The following year, Portugal’s Black Panther helped the Toronto Metros-Croatia to the title, before finishing up with a spell in Vegas (why not?!).

6. Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)

Thierry Henry

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Arsenal’s greatest ever player and one of the Premier League’s greatest ever players, Thierry Henry brought his ‘va va voom’ to MLS in 2010, swapping Barcelona for the New York Red Bulls.

The silky-smooth French icon spent four-and-a-half seasons with the Red Bulls (briefly returning to Arsenal on loan in 2012), scoring 51 league goals and lifting the 2013 Supporters’ Shield.

5. Franz Beckenbauer (New York Cosmos)

Franz Beckenbauer

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By 1977, Franz Beckenbauer had won it all: the World Cup and European Championship with West Germany, and no fewer than three European Cups with Bayern Munich – all as captain – so he might as well have headed to the States.

One of several veritably huge names to pull on the jersey of the New York Cosmos – where he lined up alongside Pele in his first campaign – Der Kaiser lifted the NASL title in 1977, 1978 and 1980.

4. David Beckham (LA Galaxy)

David Beckham

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When David Beckham signed for the LA Galaxy in 2007, he immediately raised the profile of MLS. England’s most recognisable sportsperson of his era spent just over five years in the States – and he remained the league’s biggest superstar for well over a decade.

After loan spells at AC Milan, Beckham returned to Europe on a permanent basis in 2013, seeing out his career with PSG – only to head back to the US the following year to begin the process of founding Inter Miami.

3. Johann Cruyff (Los Angeles Aztecs, Washington Diplomats)

Johan Cruyff

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Perhaps the greatest footballing mind there has ever been, Johann Cruyff spread his genius to the USA in the late 70s and early 80s, firstly with the Los Angeles Aztecs.

Voted NASL MVP in his first season, Cruyff left the Aztecs for the Washington Diplomats in 1980 – but only after weighing up an offer from Scottish outfit Dumbarton!

He made 51 NASL appearances in all, scoring 26 goals.

2. Pele (New York Cosmos)

Pele

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Football’s first international superstar, Pele only ever played domestic football for two clubs: Santos in his native Brazil and the New York Cosmos in the States.

It’s fair to say that O Rei’s 1975 arrival in the Big Apple was a big, big deal – and, in 1977, he inspired the Cosmos to their second NASL title – after which the club retired their number 10 shirt in his honour.

1. Lionel Messi (Inter Miami)

Lionel Messi

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MLS had become pretty big by the summer of Lionel 2023 – but when Lionel Messi moved to Inter Miami, it became considerably bigger.

The presence of the greatest player of all time attracted such a frenzy that new Miami captain Messi was given his own personal bodyguard to tail him at all times (yes, even during games).

Within three months of his arrival in Miami, Argentina’s 2022 inspirational World Cup-winning skipper scooped his eighth Ballon d’Or, becoming MLS’ first ever winner of the award.

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