Who are the best players to ever pass through the MLS Draft? It’s a question sure to stir plenty of debate, and will depend largely on which criteria you choose.
If you want to talk about purely MLS-related contributions, you will get one list. When you take full careers, both in MLS and abroad, and international duty, you get a totally different list. If you want to put a team together based on overall contributions made to the team that drafted them, you will have another group of players.
SBI’s All-Time MLS Draft XI was chosen based on club career both in MLS and abroad, along with national team contributions. That means there are some MLS legends excluded, and some USMNT legends who began their career on a draft-day stage.
Some standout players associated with the draft are not included for a variety of reasons. Brian McBride and Frankie Hejduk were part of the first MLS Draft, but that draft was the Inaugural Player Draft, which included established pros. It was not the college draft.
Other players, like Chris Wondolowski, were not part of the regular draft, but were instead selected in the MLS Supplemental Draft. That Wondolowski was overlooked in the regular MLS College Draft in 2005 is a story in itself, but for the purposes of honoring the best to ever be chosen in the MLS college draft, Wondolowski is excluded.
Who have been the best players to pass through the MLS college draft in the league’s 24 previous college drafts? Here is SBI’s All-Time MLS Draft XI:
The 2nd pick in the 2005 MLS Draft endured the rough early years of Chivas USA to fashion an impressive career, moving on to England, where he spent a decade, playing more than 150 Premier League matches at Aston Villa and Middlesbrough.
Guzan has also fashioned a solid national team career, making 64 appearances and still competing for a place to this day. He added to his impressive resume by helping Atlanta United win the 2018 MLS Cup.
The fourth pick in the 2000 MLS Draft, Bocanegra was a dominant presence immediately, helping the Fire reach the MLS Cup final in his rookie season. He won two MLS defender of the year awards in an impressive four-year stint before moving to Europe and embarking on a solid career that took him to England, Scotland, France and Spain before he closed out his career back in MLS.
Bocanegra also put together one of the best USMNT careers of any defender in American history. The former national team captain made 110 appearances, scoring 14 goals (most ever by an American defender) and appearing in two World Cups.
The second pick in the 2009 MLS Draft, Gonzalez has made a career of winning titles in multiple leagues. He was the anchor of the LA Galaxy’s three-time MLS Cup-winning dynasty from 2011 to 2014, then moved to Mexico, where he won multiple trophies with Pachuca.
Gonzalez also established himself with the USMNT, serving as a starter at the 2014 World Cup, and making 52 appearances.
Some folks in England might be oblivious to the fact Nelsen’s pro career began in MLS, and began with him being the fourth pick in the 2001 MLS Draft. Nelsen was a two-time Best XI selection, and 2003 Defender of the Year, while helping lead D.C. United to the 2004 MLS Cup title before moving on to Europe.
Nelsen enjoyed a decade-long career in England, mostly as a top player for Blackburn before stints with Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers. Nelsen was also a mainstay for the New Zealand national team, making 49 appearances for the Kiwis.
The only player on this list who never played outside MLS, Marshall earned his spot by being a three-time MLS Defender of the Year, and by helping two different teams to MLS Cup titles (Columbus in 2008, Seattle in 2016).
The second pick in the 2004 MLS Draft, Marshall never quite broke through with the USMNT (making 12 appearances), but his outstanding play in MLS for 15 seasons was enough to earn him a well-deserved place on this list.
There is a long-held belief that teams stayed away from selecting Bradley in the 2004 MLS Draft because his father Bob was coaching the MetroStars, but whatever led Bradley to fall to the 36th pick in the draft helped make him the most accomplished late-round pick in league history.
Bradley left the MetroStars after two seasons to embark on an impressive eight-year journey in Europe that saw him enjoy successful stints in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy before his return to MLS in 2014. He then proceeded to help transform TFC from laughing stock to perennial title contender.
Then you have Bradley’s national team accomplishments, which are considerable. A participant in two World Cups, Bradley has made a whopping 151 appearances for the USMNT, helping the team to multiple Gold Cup titles.
The 42nd pick in the 2008 MLS Draft, Cameron impressed from the start, helping the Houston Dynamo reach a pair of MLS Cup finals during his five seasons before he made the jump to England, joining Stoke City and becoming a regular in the Premier League for six straight seasons.
Cameron’s versatility allowed him to enjoy successful stints as a right back, central defender and defensive midfielder, and he eventually broke through with the USMNT, making 52 appearances and taking part in the 2014 World Cup.
One of the best American attacking midfielders in MLS history, Kljestan’s pro career began with him being chosen fifth overall in the 2006 MLS Draft. He enjoyed a solid five-year stint with Chivas USA before making the move to Europe, where he joined Belgian power Anderlecht for five seasons.
Kljestan won three league titles with Anderlecht before returning to MLS and joining the New York Red Bulls, which he helped lead to the 2015 MLS Supporters’ Shield. On the international front, Kljestan made 52 appearances for the USMNT.
The second pick in the 2011 MLS Draft, Nagbe might not come to mind as an all-time draft great because he has never put up gawdy statistics, but it’s hard to argue with the impact he made on two championship-winning teams in MLS. Nagbe was a driving force in Portland’s 2015 MLS Cup triumph, and in Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS Cup victory.
Nagbe has yet to leave MLS to make his mark on Europe, and the window for that opportunity could be closing. On the international front, Nagbe has made 25 appearances for the USMNT, but that may wind up being it, which would be a disappointment considering his impressive talent.
Even before his second stint in MLS, and his role in helping Toronto FC win the 2017 MLS Cup title, Altidore had already put together quite the resume. The 17th pick in the 2006 MLS Draft, Altidore wowed scouts with his power and speed, and his impressive showings with various youth national teams helped pave the way for a record-setting move to Europe.
Altidore joined La Liga side Villarreal for a then-MLS record $10 million transfer, and while he didn’t catch on in Spain he eventually found considerable success with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, which helped earn him a $13 million transfer to Sunderland. His time in England was largely disappointing, but he made a successful return to MLS with TFC.
On the international front, Altidore is one of the leading scorers in USMNT history, and while he is still searching for his first World Cup goal, his time with the national team isn’t over yet.
The best player to ever pass through the MLS Draft, Dempsey exceeded all expectations from his humble beginnings as the eighth overall pick in the 2004 MLS Draft. He helped the New England Revolution to a pair of MLS Cup final appearances in his three seasons before moving to English Premier League side Fulham.
Dempsey shined at Fulham, scoring 50 goals over parts of seven seasons. His six year stint with the Seattle Sounders included an MLS Cup title, but nothing topped his USMNT contributions. Dempsey scored in three different World Cups and finished in a tie with Landon Donovan for the most goals in national team history with 57 goals in his 141 USMNT appearances.
Nick Rimando, Eddie Pope, Matt Besler, Todd Dunivant, Michael Parkhurst, Tim Ream, Graham Zusi, Clint Mathis, Steve Ralston, Shalrie Joseph, Taylor Twellman.