Major League Soccer (MLS) has featured some of the world’s most outstanding players whose impactful contributions have impressed their supporters and clubs with title-winning performances, brand partnerships, and sponsorship deals.
The likes of Carlos Vela, Sebastian Giovinco, and most recently, Lionel Messi are designated player signings that fall into this category.
However, these names have compatriots like Claudio Reyna and Marcelo Gallardo, whose performances produced opposite results.
Some MLS franchises have invested heavily in designated player signings they hoped would improve their teams but fell short of expectations.
Therefore, we will review the top ten most memorable worst signings in MLS’s history.
Worst Signings In MLS History
10. Claudio Reyna
- Team: New York Red Bulls
Reyna is highly known among USMNT faithful as one of the first few Americans in the modern era to feature for European clubs.
The midfielder was a member of the Manchester City squad between 2003 and 2007, registering 87 Premier League appearances due to recurrent injury concerns.
MLS’s New York Red Bulls acquired Reyna from the English side, hoping that playing in a less competitive league would lessen his frequent injuries.
Sadly, injuries would restrict the former American international to twenty-seven games in less than two seasons with the franchise.1
Reyna joined the New York Red Bulls as the greatest American player of his generation, with a guaranteed salary of $1.25 million per year.
However, Reyna was a shadow of the player USMNT fans were familiar with and retired before running out of contract.
9. Frank Rost
- Team: New York Red Bulls
We barely hear of MLS clubs giving a designated player spot to goalkeepers, but the New York Red Bulls wasted a spot on an aging signing like Frank Rost.
While Rost was decent for considerable periods during his spells with Schalke 04 and Hamburger SV, he was average at best when he moved to the MLS in 2011.
The German conceded 14 goals in 11 regular season games for the New York Red Bulls in the 2011 MLS campaign.
While many players earned considerably less, Rost was on a $550,000 payroll for playing about a quarter of a season.2
Ultimately, he retired in 2012 after failing to agree terms with the New York side.
8. Nery Castillo
- Team: Chicago Fire
The New York Red Bulls recorded failures with aging players in Claudio Reyna and Frank Rost, but the Chicago Fire decided to try their luck with a much younger player in Nery Castillo.
Castillo failed to impress despite having a different profile that the league should have made its model. He had struggled for playtime in Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City, and Dnipro before securing a move to Chicago Fire.
The Mexican earned $1.8 million in guaranteed compensation as a designated player on loan, with a league record as the second-youngest DP signing in MLS history.3
Sadly, he had Chicago fans covering their eyes in shame with no impact in a total of eight appearances and a long time on the sidelines due to injuries.
7. Douglas Costa
- Team: LA Galaxy
Many are the woes of Douglas Costa, whose ill form has not only seen him being regarded as one of the worst players in the MLS, but has compounded to being among the ranks of worst signings in the MLS
Douglas Costa was among Europe’s most promising youngsters when he broke into Shakhtar Donetsk’s first team.
However, injuries plagued his developments at Bayern Munich and Juventus before moving to the MLS last year as a high-profile signing.
His career at LA Galaxy is a thriller of his abilities, but he has struggled to maintain fitness to prove his worth despite playing in a less competitive league.
Costa recorded only five G/A in 29 appearances for LA Galaxy last season.
He has killed all hopes of a more prolific 2023 season with his name on more yellow cards than on the scoreboard in seventeen appearances this season.
While he has registered five assists in the league, he has not found the net in 14 league appearances.
Costa will be out of contract by December but will be regrettably remembered as a flop if he doesn’t secure another contract or magically improve his performance in the next few weeks.
6. Marcelo Gallardo
- Team: D.C. United
Argentines have recently graced the MLS, reminiscent of Lionel Messi, Luciano Acosta, and young Thiago Almada.
However, Marcelo Gallardo let his supporters down during his one-season MLS spell with D.C. United in 2008.
Soccer fans highly respected Gallardo for his skillful, intelligent, and defense-splitting playmaking, and hardly anyone would have questioned D.C. United for investing in him.
Sadly, he would help the franchise appear among teams with the worst transfer mistakes in MLS history.
Gallardo earned $1.87 million (equivalent to $2,541,697 in 2022) for his reputation, the best he could offer for D.C. United.4
He earned more than everyone in the league except David Beckham and Cuauhtémoc Blanco but suffered from injuries and loss of form to become one of the worst DP signings in the league’s history.
The Argentine managed to score only four goals and record three assists in 15 appearances for a whopping $1.87 million.
- Team: Toronto FC, Chicago Fire
Not everyone gets an opportunity to redeem themselves.
However, Gilberto failed two chances to become an outstanding soccer player in the MLS in two stints with Toronto FC and Chicago Fire.
Gilberto arguably had the right players around him to succeed in Toronto FC, thanks to former USMNT captain Michael Bradley and highly experienced Jermain Defoe.
However, he fumbled the chance to make an impact, scoring only seven goals in 28 appearances as a striker.
Toronto invested $3 million to acquire the Brazilian from Internacional and placed him on a $1.2 million contract in guaranteed compensation, which made his performance more disappointing.5
Chicago Fire decided to sign Gilberto after a short loan to Vasco da Gama from Toronto FC, where he finished as the club’s top goalscorer during the 2015 Campeonato Carioca.
However, he showed he could not make it in the MLS after a poor second season where he failed to record any goal.
4. Julian De Guzman
- Team: Toronto FC
Toronto FC has a little history of signing underperforming designated players despite securing one of the best in Sebastian Giovinco.
Gilberto’s failure is a recent occurrence compared to Julian De Guzman’s in 2009 when the Canadian joined from the Spanish side, Deportivo de La Coruña on a contract worth $1,910,746 per year.
Sadly, injuries and broad-brush poor performances saw De Guzman lack positive contributions on the pitch.
As such, he would leave the Canadian franchise, making the league’s all-time worst XI. Guzman’s script was similar to Gilberto’s as he failed on his second chance in FC Dallas before leaving the MLS in 2012.
- Team: FC Dallas
Denílson earned fame for his creativity and technicality, which made him the world’s most expensive player in 1998 when he signed for Spanish side Real Betis.6
He gained over 60 caps for Brazil and won the 2002 FIFA World Cup with his country despite not featuring for a top European club like Real Madrid or Barcelona.
Such a profile attracted FC Dallas, who signed the Brazilian on a contract worth a little less than $900,000 in guaranteed compensation in 2007.7
While fellow European import David Beckham would go on to become one of the league’s greatest players, Denílson featured only eight times, scoring once from a spot-kick.
His teammate Darío Sala revealed that the team was struggling to adjust to a change in scheme to accommodate Denílson, ultimately leading to his release in 2008.
2. Rais M’Bolhi
- Team: Philadelphia Union
Philadelphia Union got everything wrong with Rais M’Bolhi’s DP signing in 2014.
They had two solid goalkeepers and could have signed a much-needed outfield player with M’Bolhi’s spot.
More so, The club could have bid for a better goalie if it needed one. However, they scouted an average player with little top-flight experience.
Rais M’Bolhi’s one-year spell at Philadelphia was as bad as whatever motive inspired his transfer.
He made his debut almost a month after completing his move from Bulgarian side CSKA Sofia due to paperwork complications and minor injuries from a motor accident.
Poor performances restricted the Algerian goalkeeper to nine appearances in the 2015 MLS campaign before head coach Jim Curtin phased him out.
Media channels revere M’Bolhi as one of the worst signings in the Philadelphia Union’s history and infamously remember him for conceding one of the most significant goals in American soccer history.8
However, we consider him one of the worst in MLS history.
1. Rafa Márquez
- Team: New York Red Bulls
The last and least is Rafa Márquez, who failed in the MLS despite playing for top European clubs like Monaco and Barcelona.
The New York Red Bulls likely invested in the Mexican’s experience but picked up another missile as they did with Claudio Reyna and Frank Rost.
Márquez lost the New Yorkers’ favor after missing 37 games from a possible 73 due to injuries, poor form, and disciplinary actions.
Red Bulls supporters openly booed Márquez whenever they had the chance, which is a rare occurrence in the MLS. Worse still, he earned $4.6 million per season for his shenanigans.11
Márquez arguably sits among the league’s all-time worst transfer failures of any kind and one of the worst signings in world soccer.
While MLS teams have witnessed quality signings that improved their quality and popularity, they have suffered a fair share of bad investments in designated player signings, reminiscent of the worst signings in MLS history.
While these stars may have under performed in the MLS, it is worthy to note that several of these stars moved to the MLS in the twilight of their career, a factor perhaps responsible for their below par performances.
While they may have under-performed, these stars are big names in football, and helped bring attention to the MLS, a factor that perhaps drove the MLS vs EPL discourse.
Just as the MLS has its troves of under performing stars, many including European imports are dominating the league as the best players in the MLS.
Our list featured multi-million-dollar contracts, puzzling transfer choices, and players who never made it as regular starters. We hope not to find many players to replace these shortly as fans and executives find ways to improve the league.
References & Notes
- Claudio Reyna Set to Retire From the New York Red Bulls. Bleacher Report
- Red Bulls face some tough goalkeeper decisions. New York Post
- LAFC signs Diego Rossi as second youngest designated player in history. Goal
- Money for nothing. CBC Sports
- TFC Dispatch: Gilberto Emerging As Potent Striker. LWOS
- Denilson knows firsthand the pressure that comes with world-record transfer. ESPN
- Tweaking the Designated Player. New York Times
- Will Rais Mbolhi Go Down As The Worst Signing In Philadelphia Union History? CBC News Philadelphia
- Marquez criticizes teammates after Red Bulls’ latest loss. SBI
- San Jose’s injured Shea Salinas, an original Union player, sorry to miss a playing return. The Inquirer
- Red Bulls Release Defender Rafa Marquez. CBS New York