Our (totally unofficial) ranking of the fastest, strongest, and most unstoppable workhorses in the MLS.
Shawn Donnelly 1 / 12
Virtually everything about Major League Soccer has improved since the league began in 1996. The stadiums are more luxurious and soccer-friendly. The skill level is higher. The crowds are bigger—21,574 people attended games on average in 2015, up 56% from 2000—and more passionate.) Even the supporters’ banners—aka tifos—are significantly more creative.
But one thing has remained the same since the very beginning: MLS has always had plenty of guys who were willing to run their knee-high socks off. Of course, even in a pro league that’s distinguished by its athleticism and conditioning, some cardio studs still rise above the rest. Here’s a look at the 11 fittest MLS players of all time.
(Note: In cases where an athlete played for more than one team, we've noted the club where he played at his best and/or the longest.)
Frankie Hejduk, Columbus Crew
Hejduk is a no-brainer. The long-haired defender out of San Diego is widely considered the fittest man to ever lace up cleats in Major League Soccer. As legend has it, he never lost "a beep test"—a drill that requires players to shuttle between cones at ever-quickening intervals—in his life. His not-so-secret weapon? Surfing. A national junior surfing champ, Hejduk surfed throughout his MLS career and credited the activity for his lack of fatigue on the soccer field—not to mention his exceptional core strength and balance.
Another beep test hero, Zusi regularly covers more ground than anyone else on Sporting KC. During a playoff match in 2013, Zusi logged more than 10 miles. (Most players cover about six.) The wing midfielder doesn’t have blazing speed, but he makes up for it with exceptional endurance, a must-have for his nonstop runs up and down the flank.
Before the 2014 World Cup, he recorded a VO2 max of 71ml/kg/min, one of the highest in MLS history. It means that Zusi’s body consumes oxygen as efficiently as a professional cyclist competing in the Tour de France (without the blood doping).
Landon Donovan, Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes
By any statistical measurement, Donovan is the greatest player in MLS history. He’s both the league’s all-time top scorer (144 goals) and all-time assists leader (136). He hoisted a record six MLS Cups. Even the damn MVP award is named in his honor. So yeah, legend.
But he’s also one of the fittest players the league has ever seen. He ranks in the top 10 in career minutes played—which is even more impressive when you consider he also ranks second in career appearances for the U.S. national team. And each time he stepped on the pitch, he ran. At the 2010 World Cup, Donovan averaged 7.5 miles per game—second most in the tournament.
The UCLA product started with the Galaxy in the first year of MLS and stayed with the club through 12 remarkably consistent seasons. (He played at least 22 games in all but one year.) After calling it quits in 2007, the Galaxy retired his number 13, making it the first number retired in MLS history. A two-time MLS Cup winner, the lightning-fast wing midfielder has also appeared in more games for the U.S. national team, 164, than any other player.
The Everett, Washington, native used his excellent pace and conditioning to run the flanks for five MLS teams, including two stints with the Colorado Rapids. He helped lead the Kansas City Wizards to an MLS Cup in 2000, and at the time of his retirement in 2006 from the New York Red Bulls, he was the league’s all-time leader in games played.
The hard-nosed Cuban-American has been a reliable soldier in central midfield for the Sounders since breaking into the league in 2009. A tenacious ball-winner and underrated distributor, Alonso regularly puts in a 90-minute shift for his team. In 2009 he played all 210 minutes in two playoff games against Houston, and in 2011 he played 90 minutes in each of his 32 MLS starts. Basically, the four-time All-Star doesn’t get subbed out unless he’s injured, which is why he’s become a fan favorite among the Sounders’ rabid base of supporters.
True, the Team USA goalkeeper has spent most of his club career in England, playing more than 300 games for Everton FC. But the New Jersey native actually played at least part of six seasons for the MetroStars before heading to the UK, appearing in 88 games and impressing enough to be named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2001. A terrific athlete—Howard averaged 15 points per game on the basketball court in high school and was drafted by the Harlem Globetrotters—he improved his explosiveness, core strength and power through a cutting-edge workout regimen while at Everton. The "Secretary of Defense" will put those skills on display for the Colorado Rapids starting in July 2016.
How impactful was Higuain upon joining the Columbus Crew in 2012? The attacking midfielder was voted MLS Newcomer of the Year, even though he entered the league five months after the start of the season. The 31-year-old Argentine regularly displays great endurance in the middle of the park, harassing defenses with smart runs, expert ball control, and visionary through-balls. His conditioning is such that even late in the game he can produce a moment of magic—like his sublime bicycle kick against Portland in the 2016 opener.
The Fort Wayne, Indiana, native has played for some of the better clubs in the world, including PSV Eindhoven, Manchester City, and Rangers. He’s also the only man to represent the U.S. at four World Cups. But he got his professional start with the Chicago Fire, racing up and down the left side of the field and giving defenders nightmares for five highly successful seasons (which included two U.S. Open Cup titles). In 2014 Beasley returned to MLS to play for the Houston Dynamo. Now deployed as a left wing back, he’s less of a threat in attack, but he still shows off his signature quickness and high work rate.
The son of a Washington Redskins safety, the 6’3” Jaqua was an imposing MLS forward for nine seasons, shrugging off defenders to score goals for the Fire, the Galaxy, the Dynamo and the Sounders. He also made three appearances for the U.S. national team. But it’s what he’s done since retiring that has really caught our eye. Searching for something to train for, Jaqua took up ultrarunning in 2012. In September of 2015, he won the 100.5-mile Pine to Palm Run in Oregon, clocking in at 18 hours, 12 minutes and 30 seconds—33 minutes faster than the second-place finisher.
McBride, a Chicago native, played 140 games and scored 33 goals for Fulham in the English Premier League, where he was so beloved that Fulham renamed their stadium’s bar “McBride’s” in his honor. But before his overseas fame, the hard-working McBride starred for the Columbus Crew, finding the net 62 times from 1996 to 2003. McBride took such great care of his body, he was able to return to MLS in 2008 and play three seasons for his hometown Fire in his late 30s. He also scored 30 goals for Team USA, which places him fifth all-time.