The 10 highest-paid players in MLS history: Ibrahimovic 2nd, Defoe 6th…

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LA Galaxy's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring in the MLS game against Sporting Kansas City at StubHub Center. Sep 15, 2019; Carson, CA, USA. Credit: PA Images
LA Galaxy's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring in the MLS game against Sporting Kansas City at StubHub Center. Sep 15, 2019; Carson, CA, USA. Credit: PA Images

Lorenzo Insigne will reportedly become the highest-paid player in MLS history when he joins Toronto FC in July, earning a tidy $12.42million a year. But who are the current top 10 highest-paid players in the league’s history?

For a long time, MLS had a reputation as a pre-retirement sojourn destination for big European stars. And although that has changed somewhat in recent years, many of the biggest earners in the 26 years of the competition have fallen into that category.

Here, we take a look at the 10 best-paid MLS players ever, using numbers from Capology that take into account only the players’ base salaries.

That means there’s no room for David Beckham, who, according to Forbes, pocketed $250million in total in the States, most of which was from lucrative sponsorships and the percentage of LA Galaxy revenue he earned during his time at the club. Other big names like Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco also missed out.

So who does make the cut? Well, have a look here.

10. David Villa – $5.61million

A bona fide legend of Spanish football, Villa moved to New York City FC after wonderful spells at Valencia, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, during which he won three La Liga titles, a Champions League, two Copas del Rey and a smattering of super cups.

Having also lifted the World Cup and European Championship as part of that brilliant Spain team of the late noughties and early tens, it’s little wonder NYCFC were willing to splash out to bring him in.

He gave them a healthy return on their investment, too, scoring 80 times in 126 games in North America.

=6. Jermain Defoe – $6.00million

The first of three Englishman on this list, Defoe was also one of the most expensive singings in MLS history when he joined Toronto FC in 2014.

It did not work out.

Defoe got off to a good start, scoring 12 goals in his first 21 games. But injury halted his progress and he subsequently fell out with the Toronto hierarchy.

“I personally don’t think Defoe will come back,” said Toronto FC president Tim Leiweke while Defoe was recovering. “If he doesn’t want to be here, you get rid of him. If you don’t want to be here, get the hell out of our way.”

Defoe did just that, returning to England with Sunderland a year and six days after he’d left Spurs.

Toronto FC's new players Jermain Defoe (left) and Michael Bradley in Toronto, Jan.13, 2014. Credit: PA Images
Toronto FC's new players Jermain Defoe (left) and Michael Bradley in Toronto, Jan.13, 2014. Credit: PA Images

READ: The 10 most expensive signings in MLS history – & how they fared

=6. Michael Bradley – $6.00million

Bradley signed for the same club as Defoe for exactly the same fee on exactly the same wages one day before the former Tottenham man’s arrival. That’s where the similarities end.

While it all went pear-shaped for Defoe, Bradley has become a legend in Toronto, playing over 250 games and winning an MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield in 2017.

Though his wages have now been reduced considerably to reflect his advancing years, Bradley remains an important part of the Toronto set-up and will be hoping that Insigne’s arrival injects a bit of much-needed energy into a team that finished the 2021 season second bottom of the Eastern Conference.

=6. Frank Lampard – $6.00million

Another New York City FC man, Lampard moved to the City Group club after a season spent at their Manchester branch.

While his time in Manchester was surprisingly productive, his 18-month spell playing alongside Pirlo and Villa in MLS was disrupted by injury as age started to show for a player who was already 37 when he joined.

Having said that, 15 goals in 31 games is hardly a bad return.

When he left, his manager Patrick Vieira gushed: “Everybody talks about Frank’s goalscoring record from midfield but I can tell you after a year of working with him, he brings so much more to a team than just goals.

“What Frank has brought to the locker room is something just as important – his experience, his elite mentality and his mentorship for the younger members of our squad have helped us greatly this year.”

=6.Javier Hernandez – $6.00million 

We loved Chicharito in his Premier League pomp – and so did LA Galaxy’s bosses, it seems. In fact, they loved him so much that they gave him $6million a year to join them in 2020.

His first season, though, was nothing short of a disaster. Two goals in 12 games after his move from Sevilla (and yeah, we’d forgotten he ever played for Sevilla too) was certainly not what the Galaxy fans had expected.

But after a bit of time to settle, Hernandez was back to his old self in 2021, banging in 17 goals as his team just missed out on the playoffs.

His hat-trick against New York Red Bulls in April was a particular highlight.

5. Bastian Schweinsteiger – $6.10million

Another former Manchester United man, but one who looked about as comfortable in United red as a polar bear would in the Sahara.

Still, he gave Chicago Fire their money’s worth by transforming himself into a top-class centre-back. Weird? Very. Brilliant? Abso-fucking-lutely.

 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

READ: The last goodbye: How Schweinsteiger became an MLS ‘All-Star’ centre-back

4. Steven Gerrard – $6.20million

We’re pretty sure Steven Gerrard asked for an extra $200,000 on his contract just so he could say he earned more than Lampard.

3. Kaka – $6.66million

The 2007 Ballon d’Or winner was a stunning footballing specimen at his peak. The pace, the physicality, the skill, passing and finishing. He really did have it all.

Unfortunately for Orlando City fans, he had left rather a lot of it behind by the time he arrived there on a hefty salary in 2015.

Orlando did not make the playoffs once in the Brazilian’s three seasons in central Florida, their points tally declining in each.

“I don’t feel joy in playing football anymore, as I feel pain every time I finish a match,” Kaka told Globoesporte in October 2017.

“My body doesn’t deal with it very well now and at the age of 35 it is very difficult to recover every time.”

A bit of a sad end to a career that was wonderful at times. Still, there were some moments of magic from Kaka at the Citrus Bowl.

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – $7.2million

From taking out that full-page advert in the LA Times on his arrival and banging a 45-yard scorcher on his debut against LAFC, to bagging 52 more goals in 58 games and making two MLS All-Star XIs, Ibrahimovic’s time at LA Galaxy was pure box office.

But you wouldn’t expect anything less of the big Swede, would you?

When he left in 2019, he modestly said: “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.”

1. Xherdan Shaqiri – $7.35million 

A new entry at number one, former Liverpool man Shaqiri joined Chicago Fire in February 2022 for $7.5million after a poor stint at Lyon, signing a contract worth $7.35million a year plus bonuses.

That status as the best-paid player in MLS history won’t last long, with Insigne’s impending arrival set to blow all the other salaries out of the water. In fact, the Italian will earn more than the entire wage bill of 17 of the league’s 28 teams.

Anyway, back to Shaqiri. It’s a bit early to pass judgement given he’s barely had time to pull his socks up over his outrageously large calves yet, but a record three goals and two assists in 12 games so far is relatively promising.

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