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Apr 10, 2006

Wishful thinking

The future face of the New York Red Bulls has a gap-toothed smile and worldwide appeal. At least that is what some would have you believe. Brazilian superstar Ronaldo has joined the likes of Roberto Baggio and George Weah in the long list of legends to be linked to a move to Major League Soccer's New York team. According to some within MLS, the rumor is as empty as the gap between Ronaldo's teeth. When word began spreading last week that Red Bull was looking to lure the World Cup star to follow in the footsteps of Pele it seemed like a pipe dream, some marketing whiz's answer to Red Bull New York's need for a true headliner. Reports of conversations between Red Bull and Ronaldo seemed to lend credibility to the rumor but sources say Red Bull have fanned the flames of the rumor in order to stir some added publicity to the new club.

Even Youri Djorkaeff, Ronaldo's former teammate with Inter Milan, was drawn into the rumor when he revealed that Ronaldo had asked him what it was like playing in New York. What Djorkaeff did not mention is that nearly every star player he talks to, including Thierry Henry, asks him what it is like to play in the United States.

It is easy to see how such a rumor could grow legs, especially given Ronaldo's unsettled status at Real Madrid. You couldn't blame Ronaldo for wanting to escape the circus that his career in Europe has become. He has become the poster boy for everything wrong with Real Madrid, roundly criticized for being an overpaid and out of shape shell of his former self. His departure from Madrid seems a foregone conclusion, and Ronaldo has been linked to a potential return to Inter Milan, the club he played for from 1997 to 2002.

Ronaldo's unsettled position with Real Madrid might actually make it less likely that he comes to the Red Bulls in the near future. Ronaldo will have this summer's World Cup to raise his stock and given his penchant for dominating in the World Cup (the 1998 final notwithstanding), Ronaldo is very likely to draw a hefty transfer for Real Madrid if he can put on another stellar tournament for Brazil. Whichever club buys Ronaldo this summer isn't likely to cut him loose any time soon considering the transfer fee they are likely to pay.

The wild card in this equation is Red Bull, which has shown in recent weeks just how willing it is to spend money on its new investment. This is where MLS could be an obstacle. Even if Red Bull were willing to pay a sizeable transfer fee to acquire Ronaldo, would the league allow such a large transaction to take place? Such a deal would set a dangerous precedent for a league that has prided itself on prudent spending. Some will point to the proposed David Beckham exception, which the league is considering implementing to allow teams to sign high-priced players. That exception is said to involve only salaries, meaning it would not allow clubs to splash big money on transfers.

Even if MLS stood aside and let Red Bull spend, would they have enough money to land Ronaldo? Expecting Ronaldo to take less money to play in MLS is insane. He is just 29 and currently earns close to $8.5 million in salary from Real Madrid. Even if Ronaldo were willing to play here would Red Bull be willing to pay that much for one single player? The better question is whether he would be worth it. Signing a player like Ronaldo has its risks. He has a history of knee injuries, he isn't in the best of shape at present and there is no way of knowing how he would respond to living in New York City.

There will invariably be the Pele comparisons, but Pele joined the Cosmos at 34, well past his prime. Even at that age, Pele wound up costing the New York Cosmos a mint. Coincidentally enough, Pele's salary with the Cosmos more than 30 years ago ($7 million over three seasons) is comparable to what Ronaldo makes for Real Madrid today when you factor in inflation. Why would Ronaldo leave Europe's top flight before 30 and basically leave millions on the table from Europe and also from Japan, where Pele said a club is lining up an eye-popping bid for Ronaldo's services.

It is also unclear just how much Red Bull is going to keep spending on its new team. Its home opener against New England was an impressive festival, including a Shakira concert, a Pele appearance and a grass surface placed in Giants Stadium just for the game. We will need to see what happens in future games to know whether the new owners are really going to spend that sort of money on a regular basis, or if it was just Red Bull's attempt at creating a spectacle for the home opener. There is the belief in some circles that Red Bull came away disappointed with the announced crowd of 35,793. That disappointment could temper spending for a company that may have come into MLS with unrealistic expectations about the impact it could make.

Will Ronaldo come to New York eventually? There is a very good chance considering he has spoken of his affinity for the United States as far back as 1998. He has been quoted as saying that he would like to play here eventually and he has taken enough vacations to the United States to be charmed with this country in much the way Djorkaeff was. He would be a dream player for the Red Bulls to add when they open Red Bull Park in 2008. It is a nice idea, but much like the current rumor, it isn't one worth getting excited over for quite a while.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.