Launched in the mid-90s, MLS kept on growing in the 00s as North America increasingly embraced the football.
And it was helped along by some top talent, from homegrown heroes to international superstars making the switch to the States.
Here, FourFourTwo counts down the best MLS players from the first decade of the 20th century…
32. Joe Cannon (San Jose Earthquakes, Colorado Rapids, LA Galaxy)
With a name like that, Joe Cannon ought to have been a striker – but rather than put the ball in the net, he tried to stop that from happening as he pulled on the gloves for the San Jose Earthquakes, Colorado Rapids and LA Galaxy.
A 2001 title winner with the Earthquakes, Cannon – who earned two caps for the USA – was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2002 and 2004.
31. John Spencer (Colorado Rapids)
A Premier League regular for Chelsea in the 90s, former Scotland striker saw out his career across the pond, spending four seasons with the Colorado Rapids.
Nominated for 2003 MVP, Spencer bagged 37 goals in 88 MLS outings, making into the Best XI for the 2001 and 2003 campaigns.
After retiring, he remained in the States as a coach, eventually managing the Portland Timbers.
30. Eddie Johnson (FC Dallas, Kansas City Wizards)
Selected by FC Dallas in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft (it couldn’t just be a plain old draft, could it?), Eddie Johnson went on to make over 100 MLS appearances before leaving for Premier League Fulham in 2007, scoring 42 goals.
A regular for the USA throughout the latter half of the 00s, Johnson was named 2007 MLS Comeback Player of the Year following his return from injury.
29. Hristo Stoichkov (Chicago Fire, D.C. United)
Hristo Stoichkov may have been past his peak by the time he arrived in MLS for the start of the 21st century, but Bulgaria’s greatest player of all time still knew where the goal was.
The 1994 Ballon d’Or winner found the net 22 times in MLS in total, helping Chicago to the 2000 championship game and making it into that season’s Best XI.
28. Brian Ching (LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo)
Striker Brian Chang racked up 84 MLS goals over the course of the 00s, the majority of them for the Houston Dynamo – who he helped fire to back-to-back MLS Cups (the title) in 2006 and 2007.
The 43-cap USA international had previously been a 2003 MLS champion with the San Jose Earthquakes, where he also scooped the 2004 Golden Boot.
27. Mark Chung (New York/New Jersey MetroStars, Colorado Rapids, San Jose Earthquakes)
Three-time MLS All-Star midfielder Mark Chung played some of the best football of his career during the early 00s, earning a nomination for MVP in 2002 – his first campaign with the Colorado Rapids.
He began the decade with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and finished up with the San Jose Earthquakes, hanging up his boots in 2005.
26. Diego Serna (Miami Fusion, New York/New Jersey MetroStars, New England Revolution, LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids)
All-time leading goalscorer for the short-lived Miami Fusion – who he helped to the 2001 Supporters’ Shield (awarded to the team with the best MLS regular season record) – Colombian striker Diego Serna was in the running for 2001 MVP.
Following the demise of the Fusion, Serna never managed to make quite the same impact on MLS, but his prolific exploits for Miami are not forgotten.
25. Alex Pineda Chacon (Miami Fusion, New England Revolution, LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew)
Having spent the first 12 years of his career in Central and South America, Honduran attacking midfielder Alex Pineda Chacon made the switch to MLS in 2001, joining the Miami Fusion.
With 19 goals and nine assists in what turned out to be the Fusion’s final season, Chacon was voted MVP, as well as winning the Golden Boot and Fair Play Award for exemplary sportsmanship. Not a bad way to announce your arrival!
24. Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus Crew)
A four-time Copa Libertadores winner with Argentine giants Boca Juniors, Guillermo Barros Schelotto swapped South America for North America as he joined the Columbus Crew midway through the 2007 MLS season.
And the versatile forward enjoyed great success with the Ohio club, helping them to the title in 2008 – when he also picked up MVP and finished as the league’s top assist provider.
23. Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Chicago Fire)
Legendary Mexican forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco spent two-and-a-half years in MLS, turning out 62 times for the Chicago Fire – who he joined aged 35, after ending a 19-year association with Mexico City’s Club America.
A 2007 and 2008 MVP finalist, Blanco featured in the 2008 and 2009 MLS All-Star games and scored the league’s Goal of the Year in 2007.
22. Cobi Jones (LA Galaxy)
One of American soccer’s all-time greats, 164-cap USA international had spells in England and Brazil – with Coventry City and Vasco da Gama respectively – before moving to MLS for its inaugural season in 1996.
The beaming, dreadlocked midfielder spent the remaining 11 years of his career in the league, starring for the LA Galaxy and lifting the title with them in 2002 and 2005.
21. Clint Mathis (LA Galaxy, New York/New Jersey MetroStars, Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, New York Red Bulls)
With the exception of brief stints in Germany and Greece, Clint Mathis spent his whole career in MLS, staring out with the LA Galaxy – and ultimately retiring there in 2010.
Adept in attack or midfield, Mathis – who earned 46 caps for the USA – was a 2000 MVP finalist and later helped Real Salt Lake to 2009 MLS Cup glory.
20. Pablo Mastroeni (Miami Fusion, Colorado Rapids)
A highly reliable defensive midfielder, Argentine-born Pablo Mastroeni played exclusively in the USA – and represented the national team at the 2006 World Cup.
Mastroeni was arguably at his best around the turn of the century, when he won the 2001 Supporters’ Shield with the Miami Fusion and earned a spot in that year’s MLS Best XI.
19. Luciano Emilio (D.C. United)
Arguably the greatest Brazilian player in MLS history, Luciano Emilio fired D.C. United to the 2007 Supporters’ Shield, banging in 20 goals in 29 games during his first campaign in the league.
As well as collecting the Golden Boot, Emilio – who had two spells in D.C, either side of a brief return to Brazil – picked up the 2007 MVP and Newcomer of the Year awards.
18. Edson Buddle (Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC, LA Galaxy)
One of a select group of players to score 100 or more MLS goals, Edson Buddle went almost halfway to that milestone while starring for the Columbus Crew.
A 2004 Supporters’ Shield winner with the Crew, Buddle later helped the LA Galaxy to two Western Conference titles, the first in 2009.
17. Christian Gomez (D.C. United, Colorado Rapids)
In 2004, Christian Gomez joined D.C. United from Arsenal (the one based in Buenos Aires, of course); he amassed 39 goals in 97 appearances during his first spell with the club – from midfield (not too shabby).
An MLS champion in his first season with United, Gomez was voted MVP two years later – when he also made the league’s Best XI for the second of three straight campaigns.
16. Mamadou Diallo (Tampa Bay Mutiny, New England Revolution, New York/New Jersey MetroStars)
A prolific goalscorer pretty much wherever he went, Mamadou Diallo turned out for three MLS teams in as many years at the start of the 00s.
The ex-Senegal striker won the 2000 Golden Boot with 26 goals for the Tampa Bay Mutiny – for whom he netted 35 times in 50 MLS appearances overall.
15. Brian McBride (Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire)
Brian McBride is so legendary at Fulham that there’s a bar at Craven Cottage named in his honour – but made quite an impression in his native USA, too, beginning and ending the 00s in MLS.
An All-Star for the fifth time in 2000, the striker averaged a league goal every other game for the Columbus Crew in 2003 – prompting Fulham to move for him the following January.
14. Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls)
After six-and-a-half years with Premier League Aston Villa, Juan Pablo Angel headed Stateside in 2007 to join the New York Red Bulls.
The ex-Colombia striker became a firm favourite in New York, bagging 19 goals in 24 games during his first MLS season and making the league’s Best XI.
In fact, so impactful was Angel’s debut campaign that he was in the running for 2007 MVP.
13. Clint Dempsey (New England Revolution)
Clint Dempsey spent his prime years in the Premier League, starring for Fulham and Tottenham, but the man who’s arguably the USA’s greatest ever player started out in MLS – with the New England Revolution.
Drafted in 2004, Dempsey won MLS Rookie of the Year and scored 25 goals in 71 league outings for the Revolution, helping them to successive championship games in 2005 in 2006.
12. Preki (Kansas City Wizards, Miami Fusion)
The first player to claim MLS MVP twice, Kansas City Wizards legend Preki got his hands on the prize for the second time in 2003 – at the age 40.
Incredibly, the Serbian-born USA international midfielder – who won the 2000 MLS Cup with the Wizards – kept playing for another two years after that.
11. Amado Guevara (New York/New Jersey MetroStars, Chivas USA, Toronto FC)
One of Honduras’ best players of all time, attacking midfielder Amado Guevara chalked up 143 MLS appearances from 2003 to 2009, scoring 41 goals.
Named 2004 MVP after netting 10 times and providing 10 assists for the MetroStars, Guevara developed something of a fiery reputation in MLS and was sent off for shoving an assistant referee while at Chivas USA.
10. David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
Until his Inter Miami signed Lionel Messi in 2023, David Beckham was the biggest superstar ever to grace an MLS pitch – and, aged 32 when he made his debut for the LA Galaxy, he was still a fairly handy player during his time Stateside.
Handed the captain’s armband upon his arrival, Becks’ very presence was transformative for the USA’s top league.
9. Shalrie Joseph (New England Revolution)
Born in the small Caribbean nation of Grenada – for whom he won 20 caps – Shalrie Joseph made the vast majority of his career appearances for the New England Revolution, gaining legendary status in Boston.
A towering defensive midfield presence, Joseph made the MLS’ Best XI four times between 2005 and 2009, earning an MVP nomination in the latter of those years.
8. Ante Razov (Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, New York/New Jersey MetroStars, Chivas USA)
Another member of the MLS’ 100-goal club, Ante Razov scored for fun during two spells with Chicago Fire, the first ending in 2000 and the second spanning from 2001 to 2004.
The 25-cap USA international never won the Golden Boot, but his consistent form at the sharp end of the pitch made him one of the league’s most feared frontmen of his era.
Razov finished his career with Chivas USA, becoming the California outfit’s record goalscorer.
7. Jeff Cunningham (Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC, FC Dallas)
Among the very highest goalscorers in MLS history, Jeff Cunningham enjoys legendary status at the Columbus Crew – where his clinical finishing helped clinch the 2004 Supporters’ Shield.
An MVP finalist in 2006 and 2009, Cunningham’s best MLS goalscoring season came for FC Dallas in 2009, when he struck 17 times in 28 appearances.
6. Dwayne De Rosario (San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC)
One of Canada’s finest ever players, Dwayne De Rosario was a four-time MLS All-Star and four-time MLS Best XI member during the 00s – when he also claimed an impressive four league titles, two with the San Jose Earthquakes and two with the Houston Dynamo.
De Rosario finished his MLS career with 104 goals, 62 of which came between his 2001 debut in the competition and 2009 – by which time he was turning out for hometown club Toronto FC.
5. Jaime Moreno (D.C. United, New York/New Jersey MetroStars)
An all-time great of Bolivian football, Jaime Moreno spent the final 14 years of his career in MLS (save for a short loan stint back at former club Middlesbrough), becoming D.C. United’s record appearance maker by a country mile.
Nominated for MVP in 2004 – when he won his last of four MLS Cups with D.C – and 2005, Moreno racked up 86 of his 133 MLS goals during the 00s.
4. Tony Meola (Kansas City Wizards, New York Red Bulls)
The first MLS MVP of the 21st century, iconic USA custodian Tony Meola was also the first goalkeeper to… get his hands on the award, doing so as he helped the Kansas City Wizards to the 2000 title.
Meola was tough to beat between the sticks, but he knew how to have fun: in that year’s All-Star game, he played the second half up front!
3. Carlos Ruiz (LA Galaxy, FC Dallas, Toronto FC)
Guatemala’s best player of all time is also one of MLS’ best players of all time: Carlos Ruiz, 2002 MVP and league champion with the LA Galaxy.
Prolific during his first spell with the Galaxy – he bagged 50 MLS goals in 72 games – Ruiz picked up the 2002 Golden Boot and shared the award the following season.
2. Taylor Twellman (New England Revolution)
In 2009, Taylor Twellman became the youngest player in MLS history to reach the 100-goal mark – aged 29.
A serious concussion sustained in a freak collision with LA Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin the previous year ultimately forced Twellman to retire at just 30, but the 2005 MVP-winning striker remains one of the New England Revolution – and MLS’ – very best of all time.
1. Landon Donovan (San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy)
Widely regarded as the greatest American player of all time, Landon Donovan began his career in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen – but a double title-winning loan spell with the San Jose Earthquakes in the early 00s provided the emphatic first signs of the mark he would make on MLS.
By the end of the decade, he had become an LA Galaxy icon and already amassed 96 MLS goals, winning the 2008 Golden Boot and 2009 MVP (an award later renamed in his honour).