Football

25 Years Of Ireland's Impact On Major League Soccer

25 Years Of Ireland's Impact On Major League Soccer

Throughout history, Irish folk have crossed the Atlantic in search of the "American dream". So when Major League Soccer launched in 1996, it was almost inevitable that there'd be Irish footballers involved.

While Irish involvement hasn't been ever-present, we've certainly contributed to the rise of the sport in the US.  To start, let's look at the Irish players who have played in MLS.

We'll list them in order of the MLS debut. You can decide yourself whether the International Man of the Century (nearly!) or the leading goal scorer in Irish international history had the greatest impact.

Paul Keegan (New England Revolution 1996-2000)

Irish MLS

The striker from Walkinstown was in the right place at the right time in 1996. He was just about to graduate from Boston College (where he was on scholarship) when the inaugural MLS college draft came around.

The local MLS franchise, New England Revolution, was being managed by Irish legend Frank Stapleton and everything just fell into place for Keegan. He was selected 6th overall in the draft with the Revs using their first pick.

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Keegan stayed five years in MLS with his first year being the most productive. He'd go on to win League of Ireland titles with St Patrick's Athletic and Bohemians in a long and successful career.

Ian Hennessy (New York/New Jersey MetroStars 1996)

While Keegan may have been starting his professional career, Cork's Ian Hennessy was bringing his to an end when the chance to play for the horribly named New York/New Jersey MetroStars popped up in 1996.

He had played for Cork City in their inaugural season in the League of Ireland in 1984 but quickly followed the US scholarship route.

After graduating from Seton Hall, he played semi pro ball in the US north east with no national league available.  Nearly 30, he got to play with the likes of Roberto Donadoni, with the Italian playmaker one of the league's marquee names that first season. Speaking to RTE last year, Hennessy said he felt sorry for the stars having to play with "Donkeys" like him.

Irish MLS

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Former Irish youth international and fellow Seton Hall alum Pat O'Kelly was selected 99th by the Metrostars in the 1996 college draft but chose not to sign.

Ronnie O'Brien (Dallas Burn/FC Dallas 2002-2007, Toronto 2007, San Jose Earthquakes 2008)

Irish MLS

The first Irish man to really make a mark in MLS was Wicklow's Ronnie O'Brien. Things hadn't really worked out at Juventus or a handful of European loan deals so in 2002, 23-year-old O'Brien tried his luck in America with Dallas.

Despite a broken leg in 2003, it was a spectacular success with O'Brien being selected to the MLS All Star squad in each season from 2004-2007 and being voted into the MLS Best XI after the 2004 and 2005 seasons with Dallas.

He moved to Toronto for 2007 and spent his final season as a pro with San Jose. He retired before turning 30.

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Irish MLS

 

Richie Baker (New England Revolution 2004)

Irish MLS

Richie Baker had five very successful seasons in the League of Ireland with Shelbourne before moving to the Revs for the 2004 season.

He began the season well in Foxborough but had moved home before the playoffs began. He ended the season with six assists and no goals in 20 games playing beside the MLS rookie of the year Clint Dempsey.

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He re-joined Shels for the 2005 season and continued to impress in the League of Ireland for years to come.

Bryan Byrne (New England Revolution 2007)

The first Irish footballer to enter MLS through the "SuperDraft" was Kilkenny born Bryan Byrne.

He had played a handful of games for Kildare Country in the LOI First Division before accepting a scholarship with UC Santa Barbara. Byrne had an exceptional college career, captaining UCSB to the NCAA national championship in 2006. That led to him being drafted 38th in the 2007 draft by New England.

His MLS career only lasted 19 minutes though and Byrne left pro football shortly after. He runs a website dedicated to boots, or cleats as they stateside.

Danny Earls (Colorado Rapids 2010-2011)

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Wicklow's Earls left Aston Villa in 2008 to sign with the second tier side Rochester Rhinos.

His performances in defence earned a move to MLS with Colorado signing him ahead of the 2010 season. Earls would start 15 games that season but wasn't part of the Rapids run to the MLS championship in the playoffs.

He only played a handful of games the following season before returning to Rochester and played second tier football until retiring in 2017.

Caleb Folan (Colorado Rapids 2011)

Irish MLS

Folan joined Earls at Rapids for the 2011 season but it was June before they were on the pitch together. He's the first non-Irish born player on the list and the first Irish international on the list too.

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Folan's career was pretty interesting. He scored for two different clubs in the Premier League, was signed for over a million pounds by Hull, became an Irish international, and after the MLS, he played in Malaysia and Myanmar.

Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy 2011-2016)

Irish MLS

In August of 2011, the best Irish player of a generation left the English Premier League for the most glamorous team in the US, joining David Beckham and Landon Donovan at Los Angeles Galaxy.

Keane delivered titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014 (scoring the clinching goal in the latter two finals) and was voted the best player in MLS in 2014 (he also won the ESPY for best MLS player in 2015).  Keane ended his MLS career scoring 137 goals in 143 games. He is regularly referred to as the greatest signing in MLS history.

Irish MLS

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Andy O'Brien (Vancouver Whitecaps 2012-2014)

Nearly six years after his last appearance for the Irish national team, Harrogate-born O'Brien signed for Vancouver Whitecaps in August 2012.

He'd be their regular starting centre half until the end of the 2014 season. He hasn't played since. 33 when he signed, he seemed to enjoy the experience and still stays in contact with some of his former team mates.

Darren O'Dea (Toronto 2012-2013)

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Irish MLS

August 2012 saw another Irish defender sign for an MLS club in Canada with Dubliner Darren O'Dea joining Toronto.

As well as appearing in MLS, O'Dea played in the CONCACAF Champions League for Toronto in that 2012 season. He only spent a year there before joining Metalurh Donetsk in July 2013 where he became the first player to play for Ireland while playing in the Ukrainian league.

He last played for Dundee in 2019.

Irish mls

Shane O'Neill (Colorado Rapids 2012-2015, Orlando City 2018-2019, Seattle Sounders 2020)

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Cork-born Shane moved to the US with his family, including double All-Ireland winning Gaelic footballer Colm.

He joined Colorado Rapids in 2012 and quickly established himself as one of the best young defenders in MLS. He played for the US at under 20 and 23 level and was even called into their senior squad.

He never played though so we think we're OK to include him on this list as Irish. After trying his luck in Europe, he moved back to MLS in 2018 with Oralndo City. Last year he joined Seattle Sounders and established himself as a start again, playing all the way to the MLS final (where Seattle lost to Colombus Crew).

Conor Doyle (DC United 2013-2015, Colorado Rapids 2016)

The first American-born player on this list. Doyle started his career with Derby County. It was while there in 2011 that he played for the Ireland under 21 team against Cyprus.

Doyle would also play for the US at u20 and u23 age groups.  Initially arriving on loan at DC, he'd spent three unspectacular seasons there before joining Rapids for the start of the 2016 season. He was quickly moved to the second tier USL League and has stayed there since.

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Sean St Ledger (Orlando City, Colorado Rapids 2015)

Nearly two years after he last played in the English leagues or for the national team, St Ledger attempted a come back in MLS.

He played with Kaka in Orlando City's first ever MLS game in March but half way through the season, they had terminated his contract. The Orlando Sentinel reported he missed several days training and didn't turn up for a flight.

He was picked up by the Rapids and started their final 12 games of the season.  More injuries followed and his career petered out.  Many believe the highlight of St Ledger's stay in the US was dating Taylor Swift but alas, that was not true.

Kevin Doyle (Colorado Rapids 2015-2017)

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Having started with St Patrick's Athletic in 2001, Kevin Doyle had enjoyed a long and successful career before joining the Rapids in May 2015.

His most successful year in MLS was 2016 when he played a huge role in Colorado's run to the Western Conference finals. This despite suffering a series of injuries including a leg injury while on duty with Ireland.

Doyle retired from football in September 2017 as the effects of concussion took their toll. He remains a popular pundit on the game today.

Chris McCann (Atlanta United 2017-2018, DC United 2019)

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McCann was announced as a signing for Atlanta United before they had even kicked a ball.

Soccer exploded in Atlanta with averaging nearly 50,000 a game in their first season. They'd go even better in the second season, winning the MLS Cup in front of 73,000 fans.

McCann had started 21 times in the regular season but only came on in injury time in the final against Portland Timbersz. He was waived by Atlanta before the 2019 season, only to be claimed by DC United. he played 6 times for the Washington based team. He has signed for Shamrock Rovers ahead of the 2021 season.

Joe Mason (Colorado Rapids 2018)

The former Ireland under 21 attacker became the seventh Irishman to play for Colorado when he joined them on loan from Wolves for the start of the 2018 season.

He was set to spent the entire season in MLS but left in July to return to Wolves. He played 14 times for the Rapids, scoring three times.

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Jake Mulraney (Atlanta United 2020)

The winger from Dublin left Hearts at the start of 2020 to join the MLS champions in Atlanta.

He started the opening couple of games before the pandemic hit, ending the season with 18 appearances and one goal in MLS and three appearances in the CONCACAF Champions League.

He's set to continue with Atlanta in 2021.

Jon Gallagher (Atlanta United 2020)

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Dundalk-born Gallagher was drafted by Atlanta United with the 14th pick of the 2018 SuperDraft (he had played with Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the college level).

Gallagher spent the first 18 months of his pro career with Atlanta's reserve side before joining Aberdeen on loan in 2019.  In July 2020, he eventually made his MLS debut for Atlanta and ended the season with four goals in 16 games. He was traded/sold to new MLS franchise Austin FC and looks set to play with the Texan club in 2021.

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Some other Irish players have been selected by MLS clubs in a variety of different drafts but didn't go on to sign with the clubs.

David McGill was selected by LA Galaxy with the 33rd pick in the 2004 SuperDraft. Ireland international, and all round celebrity, Joe Lapira was selected 35th by Toronto in 2008.

In the 2011 Supplementary Draft (a secondary draft held after the initial superdraft), Steven Beattie was selected by Toronto. All three didn't sign with their MLS clubs and have had varying degrees of success since.

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We also haven't included potentially Irish eligible players if they haven't appeared for the national team at some level (save for Cork-born Shane O'Neill).  That means no place for Leighton and Ciaran O'Brien, sons of the former Irish international Fran O'Brien who had a long career in US soccer before MLS.

Of course, many non-Irish nationals have played in the MLS and here in Ireland. Goalkeepers have provided most of these with Scott Garlick and Chris Konopka winning on either side of the Atlantic.

Avery John played for several clubs here before a 5 year stint in MLS that included appearing at the 2006 World Cup. Perhaps the most successful American player here in the last 15 years or so was Ryan Guy with St Pats. He would go on to play with New England Revolution and the Guam national team.

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So now we look to the managers...

Frank Stapleton (head coach) (New England Revolution 1996)

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The Irish legend was sought out by the Revs in the hope his name would resonate with the ex-pay population in Boston and surrounds.  His only previous managerial experience was a short spell with Bradford City and his MLS career last just one season. A public spat with Alexi Lalas and what Stapleton called a "vicious press campaign" forced him out.

Owen Coyle (head coach) (Houston Dynamo  2015-2016)

A year after leaving Wigan, the former international took charge of a struggling Houston side. He didn't really improve things in Texas with Dynamo finishing 8th in the Western conference. It was their first season in the West as MLS realligned the conferences that year. Halfway through the 2016 season Coyle and Houston "mutually departed".  He's currently manager of Jamshedpur in the Indian Super League.

James O'Connor (head coach) (Orlando City 2018-2019)

O'Connor had a long career in England playing 500 times for Stoke, West Brom, Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday. In 2012 he joined the (then) third tier side Orlando City, becoming a player coach a year later.

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As Orlando moved towards a new MLS club, O'Connor was kept in charge as they moved their "affiliate" to Louisville. After winning the USL championship, and with the incumbent struggling, the Dubliner was given the Orlando City MLS job in the summer of 2018.

They continued to struggle though and he was sacked at the end of the 2019 season.

Oh and lastly, the ref:

Alan Kelly (referee)

After several years of being Ireland's top referee Alan Kelly left behind the League of Ireland and European football to join MLS in 2014. He remains a hugely respect figure in the US game and has been voted referee of the year in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

The last 5-10 years have seen more and more established League of Ireland players move to the US but mostly playing at second and third tier players. Will more Irish men soon be added to this list?

See Also: App Born In Galway Hurling Backroom Being Used By Clubs Worldwide

John Dodge
Article written by
Football fan. Lover of sporting stats. All round nice guy. Balls.ie's so called Olympic correspondent. 100% biased against your team

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