Stephen Ireland contemplates whether or not he is in need of wings. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Brian Lewis of the New York Post has some quotes from New York Red Bulls general manager Eric Soler regarding the club's rumored interest in Aston Villa midfielder Stephen Ireland. The quotes are, in isolation, your fairly standard non-committal club executive kind of stuff. It's what Soler had to say about the club's interest in Michael Ballack that makes his statements regarding Ireland a bit more intriguing.
When asked about Ballack directly, Soler bluntly said "No, Ballack is not a player for us." When asked in a similarly direct manner about Ireland he was a bit more evasive, stating that "We have said I don't like to comment on things that doesn't directly involve us, so I can't comment anything on it." He later went on to confirm that Red Bulls do have the salary cap space necessary to add a third Designated Player, a status for which Ireland would certainly qualify. It's impossible to say whether or not the MLS side is actively pursuing Ireland, but given Soler's willingness to distance himself from the Ballack rumors it's at least somewhat telling that he didn't do the same for Ireland.
Of course, Red Bulls can be interested all they want; it's not going to do much good unless Ireland reciprocates. New York has one of the highest wage budgets in MLS, but with the league being tightly cost-controlled and teams having the opportunity to exceed to salary cap on three players only that's not necessarily saying a whole lot. As in part an advertising vehicle for their namesake energy drink manufacturer, it's tough to think the Red Bulls don't have a pretty sizeable chunk of change they could float Ireland's way. How big that chunk would be is one question, and how big it would need to be in order to convince Ireland to move stateside is another. In terms of USD, Ireland's annual salary is about $5.65 million/year. That alone would make him the league's highest paid player, just ahead of both Thierry Henry ($5.6 million) and David Beckham ($4 million.) There's also the transfer fee to consider, and MLS clubs are not typically known to pay transfer fees for established players, preferring instead to pursue free agents and pay significantly smaller fees for young players from lower leagues.
I expressed my skepticism regarding the likelihood of an Ireland move to Red Bulls when it first came to light back in February, and if anything I find the idea of such a thing happening even more preposterous today. Ireland is just now entering what should be the prime of his career and coming off of his best season since 2008-09. I don't find it all that hard to believe that Paul Lambert would be interested in shipping him out but as Gareth pointed out earlier today, he could be a very useful pickup for plenty of other Premier League teams. Ireland is an odd fellow (to be kind) and the quality of MLS has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years, but it's still not the Premier League. Were Ireland in his 30s it might be a different story, but he's still young and has plenty of time to earn another lucrative contract or two. For the Red Bulls to make this happen, they'd have to commit the kind of money to Ireland the LA Galaxy committed to David Beckham when he first made the jump to MLS (guaranteed endorsement deals aside.) It would be quite an unprecedented (read: incredibly stupid) move, and though New York has not exactly been known to make the wisest decisions in their history as a franchise this one seems like a whole new level of craziness.
Stephen Ireland may well move on in the summer, but the New York Red Bulls are far from the most likely destination. New York is just brash enough that it's impossible to rule it out altogether, but it would be an absolute stunner. Still, plenty of agents have used MLS as a diversion in their negotiations with other clubs in the past. Just because this isn't all that likely to happen doesn't mean we're not going to be hearing about it quite a bit until the MLS transfer window closes on July 27th.