Zlatan Ibrahimovic tops MLS players' wish list ahead of Messi and Ronaldo
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the most wanted man in Major League Soccer, outpacing the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Javier Hernandez, ESPN FC's survey of current league players shows.
On the condition of anonymity, ESPN FC asked 140 current MLS players from 21 teams whom they would most like to see play in MLS, and 22 percent pointed to Manchester United's Swedish striker. New York City FC was the only team that declined to participate.
"Ibrahimovic would be great entertainment," one player said. "He'd be on SportsCenter almost daily."
When Ibrahimovic was a free agent last summer, sources told ESPN FC that the striker had discussions to move to MLS before he ultimately signed with United. But in November, Ibrahimovic said MLS remains a "huge option" for him in the future, adding that "he could see himself "conquering the U.S. as I have with Europe."
A number of players said they believed Ibrahimovic's famous good-natured immodesty is just what MLS could use.
"I think you can bring players with skill, but you need someone with personality who can be a face for the league, " a Western Conference player said. "He has fun. If the media goes at him he'll give it right back. There will be a lot of back and forth."
Messi and Ronaldo were next on the list of dream MLS players, at 20 and 17 percent, respectively.
"The obvious answer is Messi or Ronaldo, but I think Neymar might reach even more people. And because he's younger, you could have him for 10 years," said one player.
Barcelona star Neymar followed at 6 percent, even with Man United's Wayne Rooney, who has drawn MLS interest as recently as last month.
"Wayne Rooney. He's got a tremendous work rate, hates to lose, and I think he'd be a great ambassador," a defender said.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mexican striker "Chicharito" Hernandez, who sources said had begun talks over a future MLS move last month, garnered only four percent of support from within the league, the same as Andres Iniesta.
Man United's Paul Pogba, PSG's Marco Verratti, and Arsenal's Mesut Ozil were also among the names touted by multiple MLS players.
China no threat to MLS talent pool
A recent trend has seen some top talent move to China for big paychecks, including Brazilians Oscar, Hulk, Alex Teixeira and Ramires and Argentina's Carlos Tevez. But 54 percent of MLS players did not see the spending power of the Chinese Super League as a threat to MLS's ability to attract talent.
"I don't believe that we are looking to buy the Oscars or Tevezes of the world right now," a Western Conference player said. "The league has gotten a lot smarter with the type DPs they have been signing."
Players expressed concern with MLS targeting designated player signings who were past their primes, with one midfielder pointing to the success that Sebastian Giovinco has found at Toronto FC since leaving Juventus at age 27.
"There's a type more than a specific player," he said. "They have to be 23-27-years old. They have to be on the upswing of their career. Giovinco is the archetypal DP for this league."
A player from the Western Conference added: "I don't care to see more DPs come to MLS. I'd like to see them move guys who have been in the league a long time into DPs."
Designated players treated differently
Eighty-eight percent of players agreed that designated players -- big earners whose contracts have a limited impact on a team's allotted salary budget -- received preferential treatment. Most interviewed pointed to DPs influencing referees.
"100 percent," said a Western Conference player. "You talk about referee badgering. We were shown video from PRO [Professional Referee Organization] and all the examples were DPs and they didn't do a thing about it. They 100 percent get away with things."
Other players said some teams treated their own DPs differently, including allowing them to play following an injury without first taking part in training. One player thought the league catered too much to DPs, saying: "It's not even a question. Contracts and clauses don't apply to them.
"They navigate in a realm that they can't even understand what the players on the minimum is dealing with who might be playing as many minutes as them. DPs don't get traded without being consulted first. DPs aren't put on contracts where it's not enough to live in certain areas."
One designated player on an Eastern Conference team said the treatment varies between DPs.
"I am one, but I don't think I do [get special treatment]," he said. "But the superstars do."
ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle and Doug McIntyre contributed to this report.
Come back on Tuesday for the full results of ESPN FC's third annual MLS player survey.