On the scale of senior international debuts, which are always special in their own right, Chris Richards’s still was a bit on the humble side. The 20-year-old defender played the final 10 minutes of a friendly staged inside a small, empty stadium in eastern Austria: a 6-2 win over over a modest Panamanian side whose most attractive quality was availability. It may not have been the sparkling stuff that international dreams are made of, but for Richards, it still was a dream come true. Representing his country was a goal he had in mind for years, and for him, the night of Nov. 16 was just about perfect.
“That 10 minutes was everything I’d ever dreamed of it being. I connected every pass that I had. I won, I think, two headers. I was just trying to be as solid as possible and trying to help us get the win,” Richards told Sports Illustrated.
“It didn’t matter to me that we had nobody in the stands or that I only played 10 minutes. It was just being able to kind of cross that off my list of things I wanted to do in football, and it was being able to represent the senior men’s national team. And I was finally able to do that. It’s definitely a moment I’ll always have with me.”
Every international career starts somewhere, and so Richards’s began in a small city 30 miles south of Vienna. He’ll always have Wiener Neustadt. But his trajectory, potential and promise are shaped by so much more. While he let himself imagine playing for the USA while growing up in the soccer not-so-hotbed of Birmingham, Ala., he never dreamed of signing with the European champions. Bayern Munich was a world away. It never occurred to him. Once he made the move west to the FC Dallas academy in 2017, it was eye-opening just to realize he might one day play in MLS. The initial plan was to attend the University of North Carolina.
“Growing up in Alabama, of course, you watch some pro games but it’s not like a lot are being shown on TV unless you have certain packages,” Richards recalled. “You don’t ever hear about, ‘Oh, I want to be a famous soccer player when I grow up.’ They’re all wearing [American] football jerseys.”
His U.S. debut may have been a pinnacle, but consider where Richards spends his day-to-day. When he returned to Munich with his U.S. jersey and autographed game ball, he was welcomed and congratulated by men who have World Cup winners’ medals.
“I walk in there, and [Bayern manager] Hansi Flick was the assistant for Germany [in 2014], then you have half the players on Bayern who’ve won the World Cup, whether it was with France or Germany. And they’re like, ‘Hey Chris, congrats on making your debut for the U.S.’”
“‘Why thank you!’…It's so crazy,” he said.
“A lot of the guys congratulated me, and the coaches as well,” Richards continued. “Being able to make your full debut only at 20, that’s something that not a lot of people do. So they congratulated me and they thought it was big as well.”
That recognition means one very significant thing. Three and a half years after heading to Munich on a 10-day trial that was part of a development agreement between Bayern and FCD, Richards is a peer—a part of the team. He’s trained with Bayern’s stars, played with Bayern’s stars and lifted trophies with Bayern’s stars.
“Now being able to not just share a field with them but share a locker room with them also, to be able to have their number and be able to text them whenever I need something, that’s really something that I’ll always remember,” Richards said.
And that’s something he’ll be able to carry back with him to a young U.S. national team. He’ll be motivated not only by his 10 minutes against Panama, but by the experience of playing and winning with the best club side in the world. When critics pointed in the past to the national team’s flaws, one of the most glaring was the overall lack of experience and killer instinct at the very highest level. There weren’t Americans who’d survived then thrived at clubs vying to win the Champions League. How could they hope to compete with opponents who did? Now, however, a revolution is underway, and when Richards started last week (at left back, no less) against Red Bull Salzburg, he became the eighth American to appear in this season’s Champions League. That’s a record. And all eight were 25 years old or younger.
Even among those eight, Richards’s story is special. He wasn’t destined for this. He wasn’t raised around the game, like others who spent part of their youth in Europe or whose parent(s) were pros. He clawed his way from youth soccer in Birmingham, to the Texans SC Houston youth club following an unsuccessful tryout at FCD, back to Dallas and then to Germany. In addition, among U.S. Soccer Development Academy alumni, he’s the only one who’s beginning his European adventure at an apex predator club. Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) and Weston McKennie (Juventus) started at Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04, respectively. Zack Steffen (Manchester City) went on loan to kick off his second stint in Europe after leaving college for a short stay at Freiburg in his first, etc.
Richards is starting from scratch and trying to break into the sport’s top team.
“Being a younger player just trying to break into first-team football, you want to play every game, all game long. When you’re not, it gets a little frustrating. But in talking to my family and talking to my agents, they kind of brought me down to Earth. They were like, ‘You’re playing at the best club in the world. If you can make it here you can make it anywhere. Just keep pushing.’”
The 10-day trial became a year-long loan, and that led to a permanent deal early last year. Playing in his preferred center back role, Richards was a key component of the Bayern Munich II team that clinched the 3. Liga championship in July. That’s no small accomplishment—it was a bunch of young reserves beating out clubs with Bundesliga pedigree. On June 20, Richards made his own Bundesliga debut with a short stint against Freiburg, and he followed that up with appearances in late September and early October. In between, he was part of the squad that won the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla, and he played 14 minutes at right back in the DFL-Supercup victory over Dortmund.
That’s three medals already, if you’re counting.
“I really enjoyed playing in the Supercup against Dortmund—seeing the confetti on the field, all of us just throwing it at each other. But I think my most favorite moment was with the second team when we won the third division, because I was a big part of the team and just being on the bus afterward, everyone was pouring beer on each other, and it was just a great time,” Richards said.
“It makes me hungry to lift more trophies, honestly. I definitely want to bring a big trophy to the U.S,” he continued. “I think that being here at Bayern, it’s tradition. If you don’t win three trophies every year, then it’s kind of a failed year. That’s what keeps everybody going. We want to be at the top of Europe. We want to be the best club in the world, and every guy just buys into that. You see it in training every day. Everybody wants perfection, and the way you do that is pushing each other day in and day out. You see it on the field.”
That’s what Richards will bring to the USA—that growing understanding of how teams become and stay great. He said he already sees that chemistry forming within this young U.S. squad, which has a big year ahead in 2021 with the start of World Cup qualifying, the Concacaf Gold Cup and the inaugural Nations League finals. It starts, he said, with coach Gregg Berhalter, who’s prioritized culture as much as his system of play and has been working on returning the national team environment to something players want to be a part of.
“A lot of it is on the personal level,” Richards said of Berhalter’s team-building approach. “He’s played MLS. He’s played in the Bundesliga. Of course, him being the national team coach, he knows people from all around the world, whether it's people he used to play with or just somehow got into contact with. For me, he used to play in Munich for our rivals [1860 Munich], and he was like, ‘I remember eating at this place, and I lived here.’ It kind of gave me a sense that he knows what I’ve gone through. He makes it really personal for everybody.
“It really felt like he was like our oldest brother when we were at camp,” Richards added. “He was always cracking jokes, but when it was time to get serious of course he would get serious. But it was just such a comfortable environment and even though we had a lot of new guys and we were all young, it felt like we had been there before.”
He said he also feels like Berhalter, a former defender, values the skills Richards brings to the table (and thankfully, the former Tar Heel hasn’t given Richards grief for skipping UNC).
“I think me being a ball-playing center back, I think I fit in perfectly with his system,” he said. “[Berhalter] stayed with me after some trainings, just showing me some things that’ll make my game better when it comes to playing it into the midfield or playing it out wide—just the little stuff which makes a world of difference. He was just showing me because in the long run it’s going to help our team.”
Along with comfort with the coach, there’s comfort within the group. Richards might be assimilating at Bayern, but that remains a dressing room mostly full of older men speaking different languages. Last month’s U.S. camp in Wales and Austria comprised players just like him—young, hungry and on complex and challenging journeys through the upper echelons of the European game.
“It’s definitely refreshing to get out of my club environment and go to a place where a lot of us have the same experiences, just coming from the States, and it’s just a lot easier getting along with guys who are from your own country, that maybe you haven’t met before but it just kind of clicks because you already have this mutual respect for each other when you get there,” Richards said. “I’m not saying it’s hard to get along with people [at Bayern], but all these guys have already played national team together or played in the academy with each other and you already feel like you’re a step behind. So it’s kind of like you need to fight even harder off the field to be able to connect with these guys sometimes.”
That mutual respect, even deference, isn’t necessarily a given. There are plenty of national teams where club identities cause friction, create factions or leave some players with egos that impact team cohesion. Another group with similar makeup but different personalities, coaches and context might crumble under the weight of individual ambition and nascent senses of entitlement, or the wrong kind of internal competition. If this new generation of American internationals is to contend, it’ll have to avoid the pitfalls that can come with the sort of success they’re now starting to enjoy.
Richards sees that process every day at Bayern, and he said he likes what he saw last month with the USA. They’ve all come a long way—Richards perhaps the furthest of all—but there’s so much left to do. The ingredients seem to be there.
“A lot of us are playing with these big clubs and are all around the same age, so I think that helps a lot when it comes to the team chemistry side,” Richards said. “But also–I’m sure everyone says this when it comes to the national team–but I really think we do a good job of putting away our pride when it comes to what club we play for, whether a player is coming from MLS or a player is coming from Chelsea. I think a lot of us guys have this thing where we have a mutual respect for each other. If you’re good enough to have been selected, then we don’t care where you’re playing. We all want to win, and I think everybody’s willing to sacrifice for each other on the field. So I think we’re not going to have a problem with team chemistry when it comes to big tournaments.”