BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20: Stephen Ireland (R) of Aston Villa hurdles a challenge from Stuart Holden (L) of Bolton Wanderers during the Carling Cup third round match between Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers at Villa Park on September 20, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
According to Jack Bell of the New York Times, MLS club New York Red Bulls have set their sights on Stephen Ireland to bolster their midfield. This rumor seems absolutely nuts, and for good reason; it is absolutely nuts! You know what else is absolutely nuts? The people running the New York Red Bulls. Were we talking about any other club in MLS, I'd dismiss this rumor out of hand. But when you're not dealing with rational actors, it becomes tougher to gauge what's realistic and what isn't. Sporting Director Eric Solér and manager Hans Backe are just crazy enough to pursue Ireland. But despite what may be legitimate interest, the odds of this actually coming off are almost non-existent.
MLS has been successful as of late in attracting talented younger players from Europe and Latin America, and anyone that follows the league closely will tell you that its reputation as a "retirement league" for aging stars isn't really based in reality. Still, Ireland is a step above the level of player MLS has had success in attracting. Designated Players (players exempt from the salary cap, of which each team is allowed three) come in two distinct flavors: there's the aging superstar looking to expand their profile and earn one last big paycheck (Beckham, Henry, Rafa Marquez) and there's the increasingly prevalent trend of younger players from (typically) Latin America that view MLS as a stepping stone to a top European or South American league (Fredy Montero, Diego Chará, Fabián Castillo.)
At this point, no MLS team has been successful in attracting a first-team player in the prime of their career from a top European League. There may come a time when that happens, but the league faces a lot of challenges in doing so; even if MLS were the top league in the Americas (and it's closer to 4th, behind Brazil, Argentina and Mexico) it would be at a tremendous disadvantage. Professional athletes typically want to play at as high a level as possible, and there's no level higher than one of the top four European Leagues. The prestige, the opportunity to play in European competitions and the highest level of play in the world are all things no leagues other than the top flight in England, Spain, Germany and Italy can offer.
Where a few MLS clubs (New York being one of them, given that they are functionally an extension of Red Bull's marketing department) is with money. Ireland currently makes around £65k/week, or $5.3m per year. That would make Ireland one of the three highest-paid players in the league, a salary similar to the one commanded by David Beckham and Thierry Henry. As a contrast, the best creative midfielder/second striker in the league (Fredy Montero, in case you were wondering, and no I'm not biased one bit) makes just a tick over $500,000. But of course, Stephen Ireland is not going to leave Aston Villa, where he's finally broken into the starting XI and become a very important player, for the same salary he's making now. He'd demand a raise to even consider it, and though I have no way of knowing what that number might be I think it's safe to say it would make Ireland the highest paid player in the league by quite some margin.
There's also the transfer fee to consider, and Villa are not going to let Ireland go for cheap, especially not now; they effectively paid £8m for him just a year and a half ago, and now that they're beginning to see some return on that investment I can't imagine they'd accept much less. If we put that number at, say, £6m (which I don't think would be enough, frankly) that would translate to $9.5m. Though MLS clubs are typically very quite good at keeping these things under wraps, $9.5m would likely be more than four-times higher than the current record fee paid by any team in the league.
So, to summarize; were Stephen Ireland to move to MLS he would become the highest paid player in the league by quite some margin, and the transfer fee required to bring him to New York would more than quadruple the existing record. This is assuming Ireland would even entertain the idea. Even if the Red Bulls were crazy enough to expend these kinds of resources to have Ireland, I doubt MLS would let them do it. At some point a young and high-profile European player will come to MLS, and once that happens more will follow. But league commissioner Don Garber has been very cautious about the pace at which change occurs in the league, and I find it hard to believe he thinks the league is on firm enough financial footing to open those floodgates just yet.
The idea of this happening is unfathomable to me. That's not to say it couldn't, but it would mark a massive, massive change in the way MLS does their business, a change that most people that follow the league believe is several years off. Does Stephen Ireland really seem like the trailblazer type to you? Me either. But when something this bizarre comes out of nowhere from a generally reliable (or at least not prone to just out-rightly making things up) you've got to think that on some level, there's at least something to it.