Back during the 2013 MLS All-Star Game, if someone had said both Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley would be back in Major League Soccer before the start of the 2014 season, I think most league fans would have scoffed at the notion. And while there certainly was a confluence of unique circumstances bringing both of them back to North America at the peak of their careers, there is no doubt these are two players MLS executives badly wanted to sign. Because, while MLS has shown significant growth over the last several years, it still feels like the league is dependent on star power to generate interest, buzz, respect, ratings, and attendance.
So, with Dempsey and Bradley now crossed off MLS's wishlist, who are the Top 5 players MLS headquarters would most love to sign? For this list, we are going to ignore whether the players are available right now or even want to come to MLS. We're also not considering whether such a move would be good for these players. Finally, we'll also ignore MLS's ability to pay these players what they are worth or what they demand. This is a list of wishes and desires, not what appears to be realistic right now (because I certainly didn't think Dempsey and Bradley were realistic possibilities just 6 months ago).
To make our list, we have to make an educated guess at what attributes MLS desires in the players on its Top 5 most-desired list. To do this, I propose we look at David Beckham, the first Designated Player MLS ever brought into the fold, and arguably the player who created more buzz and moved the attendance needle further than any in league history. A consolidated list of his qualities gives us a look inside MLS's thinking:
- Globally recognized as being among the world's best players (I would say for an American player, being a superstar within the American soccer scene is a sufficient substitute for being considered one of the best players in the world).
- Energized American soccer fans.
- Created interest among both American sports fans who don't regularly follow soccer and on sports media outlets which don't usually cover soccer.
- Was a pop culture icon due to his high-profile marriage to Spice Girl/model/designer Victoria Beckham and his model good looks. Was known by many American non-sports fans since he was just as likely to be in People magazine as in Sports Illustrated.
- Lastly, he willingly took on a role as an "ambassador of MLS" (ironically, a role he wants to continue as an owner, but now he has to pay MLS tens of millions of dollars instead of the other way around). His ability to speak English was key to this role, and his Spanish skills were also a plus.
OK, so who are the Top 5 players on MLS's wish list? In reverse order, I think their list is:
5. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Perhaps the most physically imposing player among the world's elite strikers, Ibra has the ability to score goals which leave fans stunned. He's certainly one of the best global players, and he is broadly known among American soccer fans, but his recognition among non-soccer fans is probably limited to the occasional SportsCenter highlight his ridiculous goals garner. Among the five languages Zlatan speaks, English and Spanish are two of them. No wonder reports link New York City FC to Zlatan as their first potential marquee signing.
4. Wayne Rooney. You could make a good argument Rooney's Manchester United strike partner, Robin van Persie, could be in this slot as well. But, I'll contend Rooney's longer tenure on the Red Devils and his play with England's national team make him better known to American sports fans than van Persie. As recently as 2011, Rooney was named to FIFAPro's World XI, and he is consistently rated among the best players in the English Premier League.
3. Jozy Altidore. With Dempsey and Bradley now back in MLS, Altidore and Tim Howard are probably the two highest-profile USMNT members who are playing overseas. While Howard is certainly a superstar among US soccer fans, Altidore is also a bonafide American soccer star, plus he's 10 years Howard's junior, and he scores goals (which is more glamorous than stopping goals, which pains me as a former defender to admit). Altidore's profile among American non-soccer fans is rising, but it certainly isn't as broad as the remaining two on this list (although a deep USMNT run in this summer's World Cup, fueled by Altidore goals, would certainly go a long way to improving his profile).
2. Lionel Messi. A four-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner, Messi is already on the short list for greatest players of all time, and he still has several years at his peak abilities left to play. When we remind ourselves Messi is only 26 years old, his greatness is even more magnified. Messi even has become the first foreign soccer player to crack ESPN's list of the Top 10 most popular athletes in the United States. While the significant popularity of soccer among young American sports fans along with the huge following of the FIFA series of video games contribute to Messi's high profile in the US, it seems his greatness is now known by a huge swath of Americans, even though his personal life isn't covered in the US by the pop culture media. The only downside is while he is reported to understand English, he apparently doesn't speak it in public, which would limit his ability to represent MLS off the field (although he certainly speaks Spanish).
1. Cristiano Ronaldo. Widely recognized as the second best player in the world, Messi has had the misfortune of playing in Messi's shadow for much of his career. Nonetheless, he just received his second FIFA Ballon d'Or, and he singlehandedly appeared to will Portugal into the World Cup in a titanic performance against Ibrahimovic's Sweden. Ronaldo is well known among US soccer and sports fans (he was #21 on the ESPN list mentioned above, and in the top 10 among young American sports fans). His good looks and high-profile relationship with famous model Irina Shayk give him press coverage transcending merely his soccer abilities. He also is fluent in both English and Spanish, and has all the tools to be an MLS ambassador. While it certainly is close, because of his off-field attributes, I give Ronaldo a slight edge over Messi as the player MLS would most like to sign in a perfect world.
Also on MLS's short list would be Tim Howard, Robin van Persie, Gareth Bale, and Neymar among others. If you were making a wishlist for MLS, what would it look like?
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