There is a different feel with the United States men's national team under Gregg Berhalter. It's a feeling of renewed hope despite some underwhelming performances, but the former Columbus Crew boss has shown he's willing to give young players a chance to make an impact. Whether it's helping convince Sergino Dest to pick the United States or giving early call ups, the top young talent in the country knows that its chance to represent the senior team could come sooner rather than later.
Bayern Munich defender Chris Richards wants to be one of those players. But his focus now is doing what he can with the German giant to get his name into the mix as soon as possible. He'll let the rest take care of itself.
The former FC Dallas youth player has continued to impress at Bayern Munich II and had been regularly training with the first team before the coronavirus outbreak. Richards, who just turned 20 on March 28, has two goals in 22 matches for Bayern II and has helped the team find some stability in defense. Tall, strong, quick and good on the ball, he had been considered for the first team squad for the match against Paderborn in February, sources told CBS Sports.
While he still is waiting for that first team call up, he knows that that playing regularly at the highest level will be the key to appearing for the USMNT. He's taking it slow and taking it all in.
"Being here at Bayern is still such a crazy idea to me because just a few years ago I was a kid playing soccer in Birmingham, Alabama and the biggest achievement that I wanted to cross off my list was getting a Division-I scholarship. And now I'm here living the life," Richards told CBS Sports. "So I always look back and try not to take any of this for granted.
"But yes, every time I step on the field I feel like I'm not just representing Bayern Munich, but I'm representing a whole new wave of American players who can play over here in Europe and be successful and hopefully spark this love for the game back home that you see in a lot of South American and European nations. Hopefully my debut comes this year, but I know that usually a center back needs a little bit more experience so if it doesn't happen this year, hopefully early next year."
Richards entered a world of unknown when he arrived in Germany in 2018 on an initial loan move. That's where he impressed and earned a permanent move in 2019. While getting comfortable at the club, he was hoping to find somebody to take him under their wing. That came via Bayern's star defender David Alaba.
"Ever since my first few days here at Bayern, David Alaba has always been the guy to take me in and make me feel comfortable," Richards said. "He is a guy who came up through the academy so he knows the struggles and what the coaches want from us defenders. Also with him playing center back a lot this year, he's given me pointers on how I can improve my game whether it's positioning or certain balls to look to play."
FC Dallas has one of the best academies in all of MLS, if not the best. Richards credits the club for helping him learn many aspects of the sport, but at Bayern Munich things are ratcheted up. Training against the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and others just helps you grow, plain and simple.
"Training with the pros, you have to always be on your A-game and you have to be focused at all times both mentally and physically," Richards said. "Going from the U19s to the amateur team, there was a jump physically because now you are playing with and against grown men, and also mentally because now you have more competition with someone who may be older and more experienced than you are. Then the jump from the amateurs to the pros is that now you are playing and training against some of the best players in the world in your position. So you always have to bring it every day."
Bayern is a squad loaded with not just talent in central defense but versatile players who can shift into the position. Niklas Sule and Jerome Boateng are the main central defenders, while Alaba and Benjamin Pavard can also play there. Lars Lukas Mai is a 20-year-old defender who has already debuted with the senior team, while midfielder Javi Martinez has also played center back.
"Going up against these guys, it gives me both confidence and also gives me stuff to work on. Not everything that I do is perfect in training, and I always want to improve," Richards said. "When I do the good things right in training I'm very proud of myself because it's against one of the top teams in the world, but also when I do some things not so right I take that in and try to get better at it in every session."
Richards' plan is to keep working and not worry about when his Bayern debut or a potential USMNT debut comes, despite how bad he wants both. Not many expected him to be where he is today, and he hopes before long he finds himself in new territory -- playing at the Allianz Arena for Bayern and suiting up alongside Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and others in the red, white and blue.
While there hasn't been contact between him and Berhalter yet, he's encouraged and hopeful to the point where he wants to be a reason why the U.S. qualifies for the 2022 World Cup. Qualifying is set to begin this fall.
"I hope that [Berhalter] sees me as a player who can, if given the opportunity, just go out there and ball out. I would love to be a part of this upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign and help qualify us to this next World Cup," Richards said. "I think that I need to make my first-team debut first before I can see myself getting called up to the senior national team because I know Gregg values first-team club minutes. It's very refreshing to see a lot of my teammates from national teams and younger guys such as Gio [Reyna] finally getting their shot."
Reyna was to be called into the squad for the March friendlies in Europe that were called off.
"It's motivation for me because I want to be in their situation, and if Gregg thinks that I will be a good fit, I need to be 100 percent ready, whenever that call comes my way," Richards said.