Richard Fleming joined the Colorado Rapids before the 2013 season and has seen the club’s ups and downs. He is the play-by-play commentator and studio host for the team’s games on local television partner Altitude.
He joined us to discuss the Rapids’ ascension to the elite of the Western Conference and their upcoming playoff series with the surprising Seattle Sounders.
Thanks to Richard for taking the time to speak with us!
Jon Nelson: First, thoughts on making it through the semifinal series with the Galaxy?
Richard Fleming: It is an incredible feat, bearing in mind where this side was 12 months ago. They were written off by many at the start of the year, with some so-called experts only recently accepting that this side has done something special in 2016. LA will kick themselves for not making more of the first leg, in which they had chances to maybe emerge two or three goals up. Even at 1-0 down and unbeaten at home in the regular season, the Rapids were seen as the underdogs going into the second leg, but were the better side at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. LA were gassed, while Dominique Badji, Sebastien Le Toux and Kevin Doyle all had chances. Great goal from Gashi, and then wonderful work from Howard made for a memorable occasion for a Rapids’ faithful starved of success in recent times. This is a side that has made no apologies for the style of soccer. That doesn’t always sit well with the purists, or with those seeking an alternative narrative, but MLS – we’re so often told – is built for occasions such as these, where all teams have an equal chance to reach for the stars.
JN: What's the overall vibe in the afterglow through the eyes of the side itself and the fans from what you've seen?
RF: They feel ecstatic, of course, but know that there’s still a job to be done. There is a great unity, among the players and the fans. They are taking nothing for granted, but will enjoy the next few days. Few gave them a chance back in March. Many felt the bubble would burst at some point in the regular season, and they weren’t given too much hope when leaving LA after the first leg. They all know that few outside the organization had them picked as second-best in MLS and down to the last four for MLS Cup, but that’s a role they’ve embraced. Defying the odds and standing toe-to-toe with the big boys is something they relish. To do what they’ve done, against the odds, is testament to the belief, character and determination, and it’s just brilliant to see the faces of the fans. The smiles at the final whistle were infectious. So, they’ll rest up – players and fans – and will be ready to go again when they travel to Seattle on November 22.
JN: Watching the game, one of the top reasons the squad picked up Tim Howard shone through in the PK session. What's he been like for the sqaud since he showed up?
RF: Questions were asked about making a goalkeeper a DP. In front of a national television audience, and facing the likes of Ashley Cole and Giovani dos Santos, Tim Howard’s heroics justified to a wider audience the decision to bring him in as a DP, but fans of the Rapids have seen that kind of form since he arrived at the start of July. He commands his penalty area, he demands the best of himself and those around him. He is a leader, he is vocal, he is respected and he has raised the bar - on the field, on the training field and in the locker room.
JN: And to get past the Galaxy was a big hurdle as well... what's the best lesson to take for the Rapids from such an emotional win?
RF: They never give up, they love proving people wrong, and they keep fighting. Had LA got through, it ‘would’ve been deserved’. The Rapids winning has been blamed on the altitude. It was suggested that LA lost partly because of the conditions. Maybe, but as Kevin Doyle rightly pointed out afterwards, altitude being a factor was not an issue when teams were winning in Colorado last season. Fact is, this side has proved very, very tough to break down defensively, and have settled on a way to play at home. They showed again that they can slug it out with any team. Dos Santos, Magee, Keane, Donovan and Gerrard rarely got a sniff on Sunday. But for the awesome Van Damme, the Rapids may not have needed penalty kicks. Now, of course, the shootout can go either way, but that comes back to the Tim Howard factor. He is such a big character, and that appeared to get the better of other big-time players at the crunch time.
JN: How's Gashi? Considering he hit that cracker of a goal to get things started, but had to be subbed out, is there any update on his status for the next round?
RF: We’ll find out in the coming days. Hopefully it’s not too serious, but this is a team built around the ‘next man up’ approach. They were second-best in MLS over the course of the regular season, and that was playing without Jermaine Jones for four months.
JN: The thing that might worry you the most about Seattle would be?
RF: They’re getting hot at the right time for this playoff run. The Rapids played them twice in the regular season, and beat them twice, including a 1-0 win in Seattle. But they’re a different side now, in terms of mentality, and I suspect CenturyLink Field will be packed to the rafters and rocking. They have the advantage of turf at home, while the Rapids are hosting a mile above sea level. But confidence is a wonderful tonic in sport. These two sides are both brimming with confidence, and have a big prize now in sight.
JN: So then, to win against such a hot side, the Rapids have to _________?
RF: It’s clichéd, but they have to keep doing what they’ve been doing. There’s no point trying to alter their approach, an approach which has served them so well in the main since the start of March. Each player knows his role and responsibilities. They know what they’re good at, and it’s vital they stick rigidly to that. There’ll be many demanding a different approach for a different style of play, for an exciting, stylish, attractive encounter. To be honest, the Rapids are not in the market to please others. They want to please themselves and please the fans, and that means being the dogged, determined, organized and stubborn outfit which is finally making people around MLS sit up and take note.