Bayern Munich's rising prospect Chris Richards is setting his sights on becoming an household name for American soccer
The new Bayern man has impressed in Germany and hopes to debut with the USMNT this year
The United States men's soccer team was left to pick up the pieces after failing to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, restructuring its system from top down as it looks to rebuild its roster and find a new wave of talent to lead to the team for years to come. You can make the argument that the future is bright and that the young talent in the player pool is as strong as the country has ever seen.
From Christian Pulisic to Weston McKennie to Josh Sargent to Tim Weah to Tyler Adams, the names are endless. All those guys play at major European clubs and have the potential to take the United States to new heights in the sport. Of course, all of them either play in the midfield or attack, so matching that talent in defense will be key to long-term success.
The U.S. may have discovered a diamond in the rough to anchor the back line for the next decade-plus in Bayern Munich's Chris Richards.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound central defender is from a place where football -- the one on the gridiron -- reigns supreme. The 18-year-old is from Alabama, a state that produces elite high school football talent and features the dominance of Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. Richards went in the other direction. He quickly caught the eyes of many international scouts and is now part of a world-renowned club in Germany.
Richards left his home state to play for the Texans SC Houston U-18 team before being snapped up by Major League Soccer's FC Dallas. Before even getting the opportunity to make his pro debut in MLS, one of the world's biggest clubs came calling. FC Dallas has a player development partnership with Bayern Munich, which facilitated the transition from MLS youth system to U-19 Bundesliga play. Richards went over to train with the German club, where he impressed and earned a loan deal. From there, he was able to secure a permanent transfer which was announced last month. Now he's part of Bayern's U-19 squad and learning from some of the world's best players and coaches and dreaming about what's to come.
A life-changing experience
Richards finds himself inside state-of-the-art facilities in Munich. The club is one of the most prestigious in the world and known for developing plenty of young talent. Going from a state where soccer was always on the back burner to a historically rich organization in Germany has been quite the change -- one Richards still can't quite believe.
"The journey has been surreal," Richards told CBS Sports. "The past two to three years, it's been life changing. Going from pretty much a nobody in Alabama to being bought by one of the biggest clubs in the world.
"The past few months have just been really hectic, but it's been really great for me as a person and a player."
The academy life in Munich has been a learning experience for him, and he's taking it all in. Richards said it is incredibly different and intense from the academy life in the U.S. because there's much more of a focus on the technical aspect of the game, which he claims pushes him even more.
"That's the really big difference. Some players just want to go to college, they just do it because it keeps them active," Richards said. "Everybody is doing it [here] because they want to be a pro no matter what."
Richards says training and learning from some of the best is paying off. He knows that more experience is needed before he makes the jump to the first team or debuts with the United States men's national team, but who he represents is what drives him.
"I am a young kid, and I still have some experience to get under my belt. But every time I go out to play for Bayern, I always remember that I have the responsibility of being an American on my back the whole time," Richards said. "Every time I play, I make sure that I go out there and represent my family and everybody back home that supports me and trusts me, to help push this country in the soccer world.
"I just want people to know that even though I'm not that well known, hopefully very soon I'll be a household name with our national team and really worldwide."
An uniquely talented center back
CBS Sports soccer analyst Thomas Rongen, a former scout with the United States men's national team and MLS Cup-winning manager, broke down Richards' game with some high praise.
"He's different than anything we've ever had as a center back because I think his range of passing is better than any center back we've ever seen in the United States," Rongen said. "His ability to see the field and break lines with his passing - he's a high-level passer from the back - and he's just an athletic freak."
The Dutch-American coach said at 18, Richards reminds him of Liverpool's star central defender Virgil van Dijk -- a fellow Dutchman.
Here's a look at Richards' debut with the Bayern senior team at last summer's International Champions Cup:
Dreams of debuting for USMNT
USMNT legend Tab Ramos has coached Richards and loves his potential. Ramos told CBS Sports that what he likes most about Richards' play is that he is fast and strong in one-on-one scenarios and also strong in the air.
Richards knows he is far from a finished product.
"I think I'm a smart player. I'm very athletic, which helps me. I'm fast and strong. I see the field very well," Richards said.
Richards said he wants to improve his speed of play and improve on his precision with passes out of the back, especially ones he has to get rid of quickly due to pressure.
And he thinks if he continues to improve, better things will come of it. He's aiming to have his official Bayern debut in an in-season competition, but even more important for him is to represent the national team. Since Bruce Arena was replaced with Dave Sarachan in 2017, we've seen a ton of teenage players -- like McKennie, Weah and Sargent -- make their debuts. And though Sarachan isn't in charge anymore, Richards is still hopeful he'll receive a call-up at some point under Gregg Berhalter. Richards pointed out the recent USMNT camp in which Berhalter called up 19-year-old Mark McKenzie as a reason why he thinks 2019 could possibly be the year.
"I'd love to represent my country at the senior national team level. Ever since I realized there was a national team for soccer, that is one thing I've always had on my check list," Richards said. "Seeing Josh, Tim, Tyler, Weston -- seeing all of them getting their national team debuts and performing really well in them is really encouraging for me. It's really exciting as well. They are young guys, some are my age, a little bit older. It's exciting."
A growing bond with Boateng
While making the move from the U.S. to Germany isn't the easiest thing he's ever done, plenty of people have helped him settle into his new life. One of them being his favorite player, Germany defender Jerome Boateng, who is a starting center back for Bayern Munich.
Richards said he has worked closely with the first-team defenders and has a growing bond with Boateng. He said the 2014 World Cup-winning defender reaches out to him outside of training to check on him and offer advice. But on the field, just observing Boateng and the other defenders has been invaluable.
"They are so professional. They are at the top of their game at the highest level that the world has to offer. What they really preach and what you can see is how clean they are on the ball and how fast they make decisions. It's really amazing to see in person and to be playing with them as well," Richards said.
Richards said Boateng has told him not to be so timid, and to not take mistakes in practice hard because that is the place to make them.
So in his short time in Germany, Richards has been able to learn from elite coaches and players. He's also impressed Bayern's first-team coach Niko Kovac.
"Very interesting young player," Kovac said last summer during the ICC. "Young and intelligent and has done his job very well ... If he continues his personal development, he'll certainly one day become a national player for this country."
A future national team player sounds great to him, but Richard's has his sights set even higher.
"When it comes to the best defenders in the world, I want to be in the discussion sometime soon," Richards said.
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