There are football fans in many parts of the world who consider America to be a backwater of the sport. They view it only as a place where washed up players go to see out their careers, where the people don’t understand the game, and a place where they don’t even call it by the proper name.
But Richard Fleming has a very different view. Arsenal supporters will recognize him as a former host of the MatchDay Show on Arsenal Player and as one of the Club's play-by-play announcers. He recently left England to join Arsenal's partner club in Major League Soccer, Colorado Rapids, as their Director of Broadcasting and new play-by-play voice.
The veteran journalist, who worked for the BBC for 16 years, has covered the World Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and virtually every level of English football. But he also put in a lot of time studying the game in America and developed not just a fondness for Major League Soccer, but a very healthy respect for the growing league and its passionate following.
We caught up with Richard to talk about the game in America and how it is growing by leaps and bounds. In part two of our interview we discussed where Major League Soccer stands in world football, developing players in America, and how the Rapids look up to Arsenal.
Does the popularity of European soccer leagues have a positive or negative impact on MLS?
An indication of how far the league has come [will be] when the majority of your national team players are playing at home.
"You could argue for good and bad. If you are watching Ronaldo or Messi week in, week out and then you go to Major League Soccer games, do you watch with your Champions League or Premier League or La Liga lenses on? Or you can argue that it gives people a passion for the sport. They want to get out and they want to watch live soccer. MLS gives them that opportunity.
"Ten years ago if you asked if MLS would have preferred that the Premier League to keep its distance, it would probably be yes because it is still building, But it speaks volumes to the growth of Major League Soccer that they are happy that the Premier League, the competition, is here now, because they are confident of the brand that they have. They have worked on it, they are stable and they are moving forward. It is a healthy competition.
When Freddie Ljungberg played for Seattle, he compared MLS to the Dutch league. Not so much in terms of style but just "size." Is that still a fair comparison?
"I was in Belgium towards the end of last year – at Anderlecht which has a great tradition. Even in Belgium, at Anderlecht, they expect that they are a selling nation. They groom the players, they develop the players, but they have to sell them. Very much like the Dutch league. They have fantastic youth systems, incredible youth development but they have to sell the majority of their players and the majority of their national side is playing overseas. MLS is very much in that category at the moment.
"You just have to look at the main players in the national side and where the key players are playing their soccer at the moment. Again it will be an indication of how far the league has come when the majority of your national team players are playing at home. You look at Spain, you look at Italy, you look at Germany, you look at England - most of the top players are playing at home. A lot of it has to do with the money, but the quality of play and the style suits them so they sit tight. Somewhere down the road, maybe when fashion and mood begin to change, it goes full circle.
Is there an ultimate goal for MLS in terms of its place in world football?
There is a desire by 2022 to have MLS as the fifth-biggest league in the world.
"I know there is a desire by 2022 to have MLS as the fifth-biggest league in the world. And you've got to say more often than not, when the US puts its mind to something – and I think MLS has put its mind to building this brand – you would have to take that boast very, very seriously.
"Obviously there is huge competition from television, from the other sports, and from soccer around the world. But the game in the US will get stronger. I think the indication will be when the DPs (designated players) in MLS are approaching the peak of their careers as opposed to what has been the case with a lot of the high profile DPs whose careers are in the autumn."
Do you think MLS will become a destination for younger European players to develop?
"I think so. There are links between Arsenal and Colorado so they have got that instant relationship, and other clubs have similar links so, why not? What’s the alternative? You have an older player playing in the reserves or a younger player sitting on the bench. Or you can send them over to MLS with a chance that they could be playing first team, competitive football while going in the shop window. They'd certainly benefit from sending players over to MLS.
"It's another indication of the step MLS have made that the so-called big clubs across Europe are viewing MLS as an option to nurture their players and bring them on in a competitive environment. Five years ago that wouldn't have been considered. It almost would have been seen as a backwards step in your career. Now I think it is viewed as a genuine opportunity to develop and I could see it improving and happening more and more as we go forward."
Currently many of the top US players are plying their trade in Europe. What does that say about the league now?
"At the moment MLS is at a place where it is developing players and those players are using MLS as a shop window. When those players turnaround and say 'I want to sign an extension to my contract, or I want to go to the top team in MLS', that will be yet another indicator to how strong Major League Soccer is and whether it can stand on its own two feet. You don’t want to have your talented players heading overseas and then have to bring lesser talented players replacing them. You want the best league, the most competitive league.
"But again, look at the time frame. It’s still a very young league. Look at where the NFL and NBA were in their first 10 or 15 years with the struggles and the troubles. Plus, MLS has come into a very competitive sports market domestically and a very competitive soccer market globally. And yet it is finding its way and doing so very well."
Do you think the Rapids are looking to Arsenal as a kind of role model?
The Rapids look at Arsenal as a model, as something they would like to emulate.
"I certainly think the Rapids have more than half an eye on things that are going on at Arsenal. The manager, Oscar Pareja, came in at the end of last season and has been making some big changes. The club have told him that they are looking long-term. They are looking at the bigger picture. And you look at Arsène Wenger who has been allowed to build what he's built at Arsenal and I think the mindset here is very much of that Arsenal model, as opposed to "hire 'em and fire 'em" which the world of soccer is victim to so often.
"They see the vision that Oscar has they see what he is trying to do. They see that he is bringing in youngsters through. They see that he is bringing new players in. They are looking to lay the foundations for something – not for this season or necessarily next season – but for three, five and ten years down the road. And that is very much the Arsenal model. It’s very much based on youth, they are investing heavily in youth.
"I do know that there is a great relationship between the club and Arsenal and they look at Arsenal as a model, as something they would like to emulate. It’s not a bad starting point!"Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 7 May 2013