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Ahead of the United States men's national team facing Mexico in Concacaf Nations League, Balogun-mania is in full force, and for good reason as his debut will be among the most anticipated in USMNT history. But another player is back with the squad, making a less heralded appearance after a long absence and his return is also, quietly, crucial to the future of the USMNT. Defender Chris Richards is back in the fold after a difficult year where injuries cost him a chance at making the squad for the World Cup while he also struggled for playing time with Crystal Palace during the season with Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi combining with lack of fitness to keep him off the field at his new club. But this summer could go a long way to getting Richards back on the right track.

Don't miss the USMNT vs. Mexico Thursday night in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals, airing exclusively on Paramount+.

An athletic ball playing center back who is capable of sticking with top forwards, Richards' style of play is important for where the USMNT would like to go as a team and can also help Palace in the Premier League when he's asked to step up. Right back Antonee Robinson spoke about Richards at length as the duo have connected living in London together in the lead-up to this Mexico match.

"I'm very excited to have Chris in this camp and just as a guy to have around he's one of the funniest boys in the team and me and him get on really well."

"We've seen each other in London a couple of times before we came out so I was just hoping that he stayed fit and managed to make the trip out and hopefully we get the chance to play together. It's been a while since we did last play together but I really enjoy playing next to him. He's really comfortable on the ball and a solid defender so if we're rolled out, then I'm sure it will be a lovely experience."

To hear Robinson so excited about defending with Richards is quite refreshing when camaraderie is one of the hallmarks of what makes this USMNT team tick. He's already one of the first names on the team sheet and as B.J. Callaghan picks his team to face Mexico and compete with them in possession, things like this have to be taken into consideration. Robinson is a fullback that enjoys getting forward so a defender is needed to cover for him. Richards is exactly the kind of hybrid center back/fullback who is comfortable being pulled into wide areas that can allow a marauding fullback like Robinson to thrive.

But the center back landscape is crowded. Miles Robinson would be the expected name to take up that mantle as he was in top form before also missing the World Cup due to injury, though he hasn't looked like the same defender in the early going as Atlanta United have struggled to keep the ball out of the back of their net this season. There needs to be competition among the defenders, especially at center back where the team is so deep, so it makes sense for Richards to get a shot in Nations League.

Even Callaghan had glowing reviews of Richard's time so far.

"Chris had a really good 10 days here and what I can tell you is that his integration into the group, he's got such a great personality with the guys and he's one of the more outgoing fun-loving guys and he really brings a sense of calm into the group,"

"On the field, we've seen him develop tremendously. He's calm on the ball and his ability to dictate play from the first phase of our buildup. He has really matured from a young player into a player who I think is ready to make the next step and have a big impact for him."

While Richards may not have played a ton at Palace this season, his time under Patrick Vieira and Roy Hodgeson has molded him into a better player. Experience breeds confidence and it is positioning Richards into a place where he can help lead this team into the next phase of their development as he takes the next step in his. 

How to watch and odds

  • Date: Thursday, June 15 | Time: 10 p.m. ET
  • Location: Allegiant Stadium -- Las Vegas. Nevada
  •  Live stream: Paramount+
  • Odds: United States +130; Draw +205; Mexico +220 (via Caesars Sportsbook) 

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