The rules kept changing, and they had hardly made sense to begin with. It didn’t matter to Chris Richards, though; he kept finding ways to win.
It was an FC Dallas youth-squad practice session in 2018, and the coaches had designed a small-sided team game which used a tennis ball and had bizarre restrictions around how and when it could be passed and scored – You have to bounce it once with your left hand, then pass with your right, that kind of thing. While most of his teammates were bemused, Richards, who would soon sign for European giant Bayern Munich, came alive.
“Chris quickly figured out how to take advantage of the rules and was coaching his teammates how to win,” Chris Hayden, Dallas’ academy director, tells the Guardian. “His team won easily. A player has to be able to figure out something and take advantage of the situation. I think he has that in his DNA and it’ll really carry him well in his career.”
Richards is a problem solver. Which is just as well, because the task the 20-year-old faces from next season – to break into a team packed with World Cup and Champions League winners – will take some figuring out.
When he made his Bundesliga debut in June, coming on for the final six minutes of a 3-1 win over Freiburg, Richards found himself partnering Jerome Boateng, who has 76 caps for Germany. In fact, with French duo Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez occupying the full-back positions, Richards was the only member of the back four without a World Cup winners’ medal.
Establishing himself as a starter at Bayern is a mammoth challenge, but it’s not the first time in his career that the odds have been stacked against the young centre-back.
Richards left his native Birmingham, Alabama, aged 16 to pursue his dream. “Once I moved away from home,” he says, “I realised that becoming a professional was something I wanted to do.”
He was invited to a trial at FC Dallas but was deemed too raw to be offered a place at the MLS club’s academy. Rather than return home, he stayed in Texas, signing for Texans SC in Houston, where he helped the club win its first-ever national academy championship, upsetting LA Galaxy in the final.
By then, Dallas had seen enough. “We were 100% convinced he could go pro,” Hayden says of Dallas’ decision to sign Richards. “It helped him, having to be a leader in that team.”
Richards’ performances in Dallas’ youth teams soon brought international recognition. In January 2018 he was invited to the US Men’s National Team Youth Summit, a training camp in Florida for players under the age of 20.
Dave van den Burgh was coaching the under-19s squad Richards was a part of. He took the handful of rookie call-ups to one side for a pep talk. “This is your first time here, but this is not your goal,” he said. “Your goal is to be on the other field,” and he pointed across to where Tab Ramos’ under-20s team were practicing. “He’s going to the [Fifa U-20] World Cup and you want to be on his team.”
“Yes, that’s where I’ll be going,” Richards replied, without hesitation.
Van den Bergh is quick to stress that this was no show of arrogance from Richards. “That’s the goal-setting and the mentality that he has: ‘I’m going to do anything and everything in my power to get there,’” the coach says. “I saw him for four days and I immediately pushed him on to Tab Ramos’ group.”
Five months later, true to his word, Richards was one of the stars of a US side that reached the quarter-finals of the U-20 World Cup in Poland.
“Chris Richards in the perfect player to coach,” Ramos says, “because he does everything you ask him to and more. I usually tell the players, ‘Look, this is what’s required in your position but you’re free to do more,’ and he’s one of those guys who always did more.
“The way we played, it’s difficult for centre-backs. What I need from them most is the confidence to win one-v-one battles, sometimes with smaller, quicker players. He was always up to the challenge.”
Dallas enjoys a partnership with Bayern which sees the two clubs work together closely on talent development. The best prospects at the American club are presented to the Bundesliga champion for evaluation; those considered of a high enough standard may be given a trial.
Bayern tracked Richards from the moment he signed for Dallas and, in the summer of 2018, offered him a week-long trial. Richards impressed sufficiently to be taken on loan for a year by the German side. With Bayern taking part in that year’s International Champions Cup in the US, Richards featured for Bayern’s first team – without ever having played at senior level with Dallas – against Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Manchester City.
Ahead of his move to Europe, Richards sought the counsel of Van den Bergh, who played for Ajax, and the coach was not surprised by how well the young centre-back coped with his Bayern baptism of fire. “When the opportunity presented itself,” Van den Bergh remembers, “he said, ‘I want to measure myself with the best. My development is only going to go quicker when I’m playing with and against better players on a daily basis.’”
“Of course, I wanted a long-term deal,” Richards says. “Back home, it kind of sounded like people thought I was just a young American and I’d never get my shot playing here at Bayern; some people were doubting it. I knew that once I got situated over there, after a few months I would be balling out and they’d want to offer me a contract, or at least extend my loan.”
When the German season began, Richards was placed in Bayern’s under-19s. His loan expired at the end of the 2018-19 campaign, but Bayern were persuaded to tie him down, signing him to a five-year contract and promoting him to their second team.
From the moment he left Alabama for Houston, Richards’ rise has been one of exponential leaps, year on year, and his attitude has impressed every coach he has worked with. Early on in Munich, though, his focus slipped.
“It was a lack of focus,” says Bayern II manager Sebastian Hoeness. “It was only over three or four weeks. I think things beside football became a little bit too important and you could see it on the pitch. I reminded him what chances he would have if he developed over the next years. Now he is one of the most professional players in my team.”
It is to Richards’ credit that he was not discouraged by this early bump in the road, and he has settled well in Germany. After initially living on campus at the Bayern’s academy, he now has his own apartment, and his command of the language is improving alongside his on-field skills. “Now you can talk about a lot of things with him in German, not only football,” Hoeness says.
This past season saw Richards – nicknamed “Texas” by his teammates – take a leading role in a Bayern II team crowned champion of the German third tier. He even added goals to his game, scoring four times – one shy of winning a pre-season wager with his coach.
“What makes Chris so special is his positive attitude,” Hoeness says. “He is always positive in life. He has a positive, as we say in German, lebenseinstellung – life philosophy. For a coach, it’s a joy to work with players like that.”
Richards is only the second American to play for Bayern in the Bundesliga, after Landon Donovan. And while other US starlets are shining elsewhere in Germany, Bayern is different – it doesn’t get any bigger. Expectations are high.
“We’ve only seen the very, very beginning of him,” Van den Bergh predicts. “I think he can be a 10-year Bundesliga player. He can become the next Jerome Boateng if he is given the opportunity.”
Replicating Boateng’s longevity and success will require an immeasurable amount of hard work, talent and luck, but Richards certainly won’t be placing any limitations on himself; his journey so far is testament to the power of a positive lebenseinstellung.