For the 2013 season, the Colorado Rapids landed some impressive talent. In January of that year, the team drafted Dillon Powers, who’d go on to become 2013’s Rookie of the Year, as well as Deshorn Brown, who was also in contention for the newbie award. They signed forwards Vicente Sánchez and Gabriel Torres. But perhaps no acquisition has come with a more impressive pedigree than commentator Richard Fleming. Fleming was the voice of Arsenal, one of the top teams in England’s mighty Premier League, and covered the last two World Cups for the BBC.
Despite his considerable experience, the England native knew he’d have to do it over again in America. “I was coming here as something of an unknown entity,” Fleming says. “I still had to prove myself to a new audience.” Meanwhile, a visa snag made him miss the Rapids’ first two games of the season. When the paperwork finally went through, he only had four days to catch a flight to Colorado and call his first game of the season—an away match against Real Salt Lake. “It was a baptism of fire,” he says. “I didn’t know the team. I didn’t know the show setup. All the while, I’m trying to get my head around this new job in this new country.” Now, we sit down to talk to Fleming about low-scoring matches, the World Cup, and, of course, the accent.
Name: Richard Fleming
Job: Colorado Rapids director of broadcasting
5280: How did you get started doing commentary?
I started out in local newspapers. Whenever the visiting team would be in town—these were the days when they couldn’t afford to send their own reporters across the country—they’d use a local guy to do telephone updates. I did a couple of years of that. Then I worked in a hospital as a radio disc jockey and did a show once a week. I just enjoyed it. People probably think I just enjoyed hearing my own voice, but I developed a passion for radio and the immediacy of broadcasting. From newspapers, I moved into radio with the BBC, where I spent 16 years. That’s when it really took off.
5280: What do you think of British versus American sports commentary? I know a lot of American fans that prefer the British style.
I think there’s a vernacular issue in U.S. dialect more than it is in the British style. It comes down to what the listener is used to. I’m BBC trained, and it makes me sound as if I’m Royal Shakespeare trained. The BBC looks for that certain style of commentator. Some are used to the American style of, almost, radio-style commentary. In other words being told, “He’s escaped from his marker. He’s attacking down the right hand side. He’s crossed with his right foot.” Well, you can see all of that. I want to try and use clever language, and sometimes that is a difficult skill to implement.
5280: You did commentary for the last two World Cups for the BBC. Talk about a career highlight—that must have been exhilarating.
It is a fantastic experience, as anyone will tell you. But as a soccer fan, you’re there five weeks and you see eight games. Part of that World Cup experience is having a few beers and a barbecue and enjoying it with friends, letting your hair down. We’re researching notes for three hours beforehand, and getting to the stadium four hours before kick off, then you’re away from the stadium for three hours after kick off.
I did the first three games, maybe four, I didn’t see a goal. I did France’s opening game in Cape Town. That was a goalless draw. England versus Algeria, that was a goalless draw. Ivory Coast versus Portugal, that was a goalless draw. Talk about the curse of the commentator. I thought I was going to go an entire World Cup never having seen a goal.
Co-commentators that found out about this said, “I’m not sure I want to do this game with you, mate! You’ve not seen any goals yet.” Thankfully, I did [eventually] see plenty of goals.
5280: The MLS is growing. What will it take for the play to catch up with the European leagues?
The one area it is lacking in MLS is technique. The more skillful players in the world are playing in La Liga, England, France, Italy, or Germany. In Major League Soccer, it’s more robust, physical, and it’s about pace. That’s part of the evolution of Major League Soccer. All these other leagues have evolved over decades. Unfortunately for the MLS, there’s no time to drag this out over 60 years.
The homegrown system needs to become more powerful. In Europe, when you’re in your teens and have talent and technique, you’re signed by a club. You’re not sent through the NCAA college system to emerge at 22 or 23. Lionel Messi was World Player of the Year at 23. Now, I accept education is a massive enticement for those young lads going through college, but unlike the NFL, soccer is a sport where if you have the ability, you can play [professionally] at 17. It’s not necessary to be 200 pounds.
5280: Who are the exciting prospects for the future of the Rapids?
Shane O’Neill leaps out, if we’re talking about players that impress and could get to that next level. He’s 20—he’s got room to grow and improve. Dillon Serna is another homegrown player who’s exploded onto the scene this season. He played one game at the end of last season for a few minutes, but has cemented himself as something of a regular in 2014. As far as raw talent that can be honed and smoothed, Deshorn Brown would fit into that category.