Bayern Munich Youngster Chris Richards Is The Future Of The USMNT Defense

Bayern Munich Youngster Chris Richards Is The Future Of The USMNT Defense

Chris Richards left his mark on the U-20 World Cup. The 19-year-old FC Dallas academy product is currently playing for Bayern in Munich.

Jul 3, 2019 by Zach Lowy
Bayern Munich Youngster Chris Richards Is The Future Of The USMNT Defense

It’s a warm, mid-May Friday in Bielsko-Biała, Poland. Afternoon turns into evening as Ukraine take on the United States in the second matchday of the 2019 U-20 World Cup. Mykola Musolitin receives the ball from deep, turns around, and launches it forward. A lanky, curly-haired American steps in front of the searching long ball and plays it to his teammate with one touch. A skinny blonde Ukrainian flails his arms in frustration, once again outdueled by his adversary.

The skinny blonde kid was Vladyslav Supriaha. Quick, clinical, and energetic, he was the breakout star of last summer’s U-19 Euros. With his tricky performances up top, Ukraine topped their group ahead of France, England, and Turkey, thus qualifying for this year’s U-20 World Cup. His performances for Oleksandr Petrakov’s side earned him a move to Dynamo Kyiv, one of the biggest clubs in his home country. He started in last month’s U-20 World Cup Final and scored a brace, leading Ukraine to the championship. But in between the transfer and his heroic big-game performance, he was neutralized — nay, made invisible — by a lanky, curly-haired teenager from Alabama.

That kid’s name was Chris Richards.

The USA’s surprising run to the U-20 World Cup quarterfinals had a North Texas twang to it, even with Edwin Cerrillo riding the bench throughout the tournament. Paxton Pomykal, fresh off a stellar season for FC Dallas, churned the gears in midfield, while Brandon Servania — another Alabama native — added defensive solidity and energy to the center of the pitch. But out of all the FC Dallas academy graduates, it was Richards who truly left his mark on the tournament.

Prior to the tournament, the U.S. played a tune-up friendly against Uruguay, which ended in a draw. Richards scored the equalizer after his defensive partner Aboubacar Keita put the ball into the back of his own net. This would set the tone for the rest of the tournament, with Richards stepping up into the leadership role that this young team needed.

Quick to the tackle, smooth on the ball, and calm under pressure, Richards left many fans believing that he is the real deal. With the likes of Omar Gonzalez starting in Gold Cup action, it’s also left many wondering how long it will be before Richards gets a chance in the senior side, even if he still hasn’t made his first-team debut in an official match yet.

“Out of all the center backs I’ve coached I think he’s the one with the most potential,” U.S. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos told Goal. “He has unlimited potential.”

One thing about this summer’s U-20 World Cup is that it laid waste to the idea of “footballing powerhouses” in youth football. Out of all of the semifinalists (Italy, Ecuador, South Korea, and Ukraine), only one had seen their senior team qualify for last summer’s World Cup. The brightest stars were not plying their trade for Barcelona or Ajax, but in lesser-known teams that, at best, have a three-sentence description on Wikipedia. Se-Hun Oh is serving his mandatory two-year military duty at Asan Mugunghwa, while Amadou Sagna is playing in the Senegalese second division. Yet, unlike several better-known prospects, those two consistently lit it up for their countries in this summer’s tournament.

The U-20 World Cup established much-needed parity between players who appear on “Best Prospects in Europe” lists and players who don’t even appear on the most scrupulous scouts’ radar screens. Richards didn’t enter the tournament with as much of as a reputation as, say, Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara, but on June 4, Richards made Kamara look like the unproven amateur.

The making of a star defender

Not only did Richards grow up not knowing where his best position was, he didn’t even know what his best sport was. As revealed in an exclusive interview with Richards’ mother Carrie, he took after his father, who was a professional basketball player, and played on the hard court up until his high school years.

“He would often go from basketball practice to soccer practice, or [vice versa],” Carrie Richards said. “I do feel that he didn’t have much of a social life. He never got to attend prom or go out and do all the fun things kids do because he would have a game the next morning. Most of his friends here in Alabama didn’t understand or appreciate his love of soccer.”

Richards’ parents were doing well enough financially to support his passion for both sports, almost to the point where Carrie could quit her job and be a stay-at-home mother. Then, when Chris was 8 years old, the Great Recession of 2008 hit.

“The recession broke us. We had to sell our house and move to a smaller house, same with cars. We both often worked two jobs. It was hard financially,” Carrie said. 

Yet even with the excessive fees stemming from the USA’s pay-to-play system, his parents didn’t let him quit soccer. They lived paycheck to paycheck and found a way to make it work.

“I can remember him getting in the car after practice with an envelope. It would be a letter saying that we were behind on payments and he wouldn’t play if we didn’t get them paid,” Carrie said. “We would not pay for something else so that we could pay his club dues. We would go to Ross Dress for Less and buy his soccer shoes. That’s what we could afford.”

One weekend every month, Richards’ parents drove him to regional tournaments in Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi. Despite playing on the best team in the state, Richards would regularly get blown out by superior youth sides, before driving hours back home to Alabama. Richards was playing in the state’s Olympic Development Program (ODP), but his father Ken knew that wouldn’t be enough for him to make it as a professional footballer. 

Ken reached out to then academy director Luchi Gonzalez to secure his son a trial at FC Dallas. It was there in the “Big D” where Richards would experience the first disappointment of his budding career.

While he was a sophomore in high school, he flew out to Dallas to try out for the academy team. He did well, but not well enough to secure a contract. FC Dallas rejected him.

“He was devastated,” Carrie said. “I can never remember being so heartbroken for him. He called in tears and was literally broken.”

Nevertheless, Richards used the rejection to fuel himself to improve and take his game to the next level. He wanted to prove to FC Dallas they had made a mistake.

He used to pin up sticky notes on his bathroom mirror detailing his dreams and ambitions: make the ODP regional team, score a DI scholarship, get called up to the national team, become a professional soccer player. He played in Alabama until he was 16. He didn’t play in central defense until he was 14. And yet he’s quickly emerged as one of the most exciting defenders the United States has ever produced, thanks to his nonstop dedication and work ethic.

After being rejected by Dallas, Richards moved to Houston, where he lived with a host family while training with the Houston Texans Soccer Club, a non-MLS academy. However, even Eric Quill, the director of Houston’s academy at the time, said he couldn’t push Richards to the next level in the Space City and persuaded him to go back to Dallas and try out for the same team that told him he wasn’t good enough.

The difficult journey to one of the world's best clubs

After Richards won the 2017 U-17/18 Development Academy national championship with Houston, FC Dallas offered him a contract. However, it wasn’t an easy decision.

“We felt like we were turning our backs on the group of people that had changed his life, gotten him a full ride to the University of North Carolina, and helped mold him into a great player,” Carrie explained. “It was such an emotional roller coaster, but thankfully [Quill] was really instrumental in his life. We trusted him and he pushed us to make the move.”

It also wasn’t easy to reject a full scholarship from North Carolina, one of the top-ranked soccer universities in the nation.

“[Ken and I] both struggled, cried, and had many sleepless nights trying to help him decide to sign a homegrown contract,” Richards’ mother continued. “If this was his dream, why stop now? But it was very important to me that he graduate from college, and I still hope he does one day.”

Richards knew of FC Dallas’ history of promoting youth into the first team, an ethos that had seen the likes of Kellyn Acosta and Jesse González go from the academy to starting in MLS. But he also knew of FC Dallas’ recent partnership with Bayern Munich, which would give a select few of FC Dallas’ academy players the opportunity to train and trial with Bayern. In April 2018, he signed a homegrown contract with Dallas. Within a month, he had signed with Nike, and weeks later, he made his debut for USA’s U-20 side against Honduras.

Ironically, Richards’ small stature had contributed to the end of his basketball career, but in Houston, he had a growth spurt which took him from 5-9 to 6-1, and in Dallas, he added two more inches and put on muscle, thanks to the club’s training and recovery programs, adding much-needed strength to compete for a first-team debut.

But unlike his international teammates Servania, Cerrillo, and Pomykal, that debut never came for Richards at FC Dallas. Due to the fact that Richards had only joined FC Dallas’ academy months earlier, MLS regulations would have forced him to wait another year before he could play for the first team. Instead, he joined Bayern’s U-19 team on loan with an option to buy.

Richards’ debut match for Bayern didn’t come against Kaiserslautern’s or Freiburg’s U19s, but Paris Saint-Germain. With Mats Hummels, Niklas Süle, and Jérôme Boateng recovering from Germany’s World Cup elimination, Bayern were short on central defenders, and they called Richards up to join the first team for the International Champions Cup. He came on as a sub against Juventus and PSG, and he made his full debut against Manchester City in Miami.

He went from strength to strength after his preseason cameos, earning a starting spot with Bayern’s U-19s. Such was his importance, Bayern didn’t release him until after the group stage of November’s CONCACAF Under-20 Championship. He arrived in Bradenton, Florida, late in the tournament, but Ramos trusted him with starts in the last two games against Honduras and Mexico, both of which resulted in clean sheets for the U.S. In the final, Richards put in a resolute performance against an El Tri side that featured the likes of Diego Lainez and José Juan Macías, as the U.S. sealed a perfect record and confirmed their qualification for the U-20 World Cup.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Richards during his early months in Europe. He’s become fairly fluent in German, but he still misses his friends, who are now separated by an ocean and a six-hour time difference. He misses American food and his family, who have visited him twice during this past season. But he’s done well enough for the biggest club in Germany to make his stay permanent, with Bayern exercising their $1.5 million purchase option in January.

In all likelihood, Richards will spend the next season with Bayern’s U-19 side again. Even with Mats Hummels departing for Borussia Dortmund and former Bayern target Ozan Kabak landing on the other side of the Rhine Valley, the Bavarians still have Boateng, Süle, Javi Martínez, Lars Lukas Mai, and new arrivals Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard, both of whom can play in central defense. 

But compared to what Richards has achieved up until this point, nailing down a starting spot at Bayern should be a piece of cake.

Zach is a lifelong D.C. United fan and the creator of BreakingTheLines.com. Follow him on Twitter.