Chris Richards describes it as the turning point, the moment when football called him to spark a unique journey from Birmingham, Alabama in America’s deep south to Bayern Munich.
The 20-year-old centre-half, who went on loan from Bayern to Hoffenheim on 1 February for the remainder of this season, was on a tour of Buenos Aires with an under-16 squad drawn from the south-east of the United States.
They played matches against youth teams from Vélez Sarsfield, Racing Club and Argentinos Juniors and did well, too, while there was a visit to Boca Juniors’ stadium, La Bombonera. “Breathtaking,” Richards says. And then there was the game.
Richards had never attended a professional football fixture before. Back then, in 2016, there was not really the opportunity for him to have done so. Atlanta United – in neighbouring Georgia – had not yet joined Major League Soccer as an expansion team and besides, where he was from, it was all about basketball and American Football; real football as most people called it.
Richards’s first match as a fan was no ordinary one. It was the derby between Lanus and Banfield, Buenos Aires’s Clasico del Sur, and it was always going to be an eye-opener; an assault on the senses. Thanks to a measure of naivety in the travelling American party, it would go further than that.
“Our colours for the US team were green and white and the away team for that game [Banfield] was green and white,” Richards says. “So we pulled up in our big charter bus in our jackets and everyone was throwing stuff at our bus. It was a scary experience but, as a 16-year-old kid, you are also like: ‘This is kind of cool’.”
At what point were Richards and his teammates advised to wise up? “Yeah, once we got to the game, they said: ‘Ok, we can’t wear these jackets any more – the t-shirts you have on underneath will have to do’,” Richards says. “It was cold outside so we were all freezing at the game but it was worth it.
“Going to Argentina was what really made me fall in love with the game. I’d been playing football and basketball but when I got back, I told my family that football was all I wanted to do.”
Sporty kids from Alabama are simply not supposed to make this kind of choice. Richards’s father, Ken, had been a professional basketball player, enjoying a diverse career in Australia, Iceland and Bolivia, having starred at Birmingham-Southern College and, according to his son, had never watched a football match. Richards’s friends, meanwhile, could not understand what he was doing.
Richards is nothing if not single-minded. He had played football since the age of three or four, his mother, Carrie, having enlisted him with a local club just to keep him active. But as the years went by and his ability became increasingly obvious, he came to enjoy the “sense of uniqueness” that being a stand-out footballer in his area gave him.
It says everything about Richards’s drive that, a little over two years after the trip to Buenos Aires, he was a Bayern player, having joined from FC Dallas in July 2018 on an initial one-year loan; the two clubs have a talent development partnership. Richards would sign a four-and-a-half year contract with Bayern in January 2019.
There have been numerous moments when Richards has needed to pinch himself, beginning with his involvement in the club’s pre-season tour of the US in the summer of 2018; he featured against Juventus in Philadelphia and Manchester City in Miami.
Richards played for the under-19s and Bayern II before he made his competitive first-team debut in the Bundesliga against Freiburg at the end of last season. This time out, there was a first medal when he came on in the German Super Cup victory over Borussia Dortmund while he mentions his first Champions League start against Red Bull Salzburg and his involvement against Atlético Madrid.
How could he fail to have been a little star-struck, particularly when he trained with the seniors for the first time in October 2018 and found himself up against Arjen Robben? “You know he’s going to go left, you’ve seen him through his whole career so I think: ‘OK, let me push him to his right’,” Richards says. “So he makes one move to his right and back to his left and he’s past you. You think: ‘Ah, I’ve just got chopped up by Arjen Robben,’ and then you think that he’s done this to the best defenders in the world for years.
“You can’t look at it in awe. You realise that you have a job to do and so you try not to be such a fan boy the next time. It was a big learning curve for me … playing against Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry. It’s something you can’t prepare for. You just have to dive in head first.”
Richards learned fast. He became a regular in first-team training towards the end of last season and what has struck a chord with him has been the ferocity of the competitive environment.
“It’s a dog eat dog world,” he says. “Everybody wants your spot whether it’s a kid from the U-17s or an established pro. They don’t care if you’re on the same squad – they are going to challenge you, they are going to argue. The competition makes everybody better so you try not to take it personally if there’s a rough challenge. You want that spot, too, so you try to do it. Tempers do fray, definitely. If it’s a younger player making a tackle on an older player, it’s going to ruffle some feathers but, if it’s the other way around, there’s usually not too much said.”
Richards smiles his easy smile when it is put to him that US sports fans tend to live their stadium experiences differently to football fans in Europe and South America. “For the most part, there isn’t this type of insanity with sports in the US,” he says, although he does point out that American Football at college level is an “obsession”.
It is sometimes said that Americans do not get football and Richards says he “could definitely agree with that”. But things are changing, partly because of the success of the US Women’s National Team and also because of the high number of young American players who have transitioned to clubs in Europe, many of them big ones. It has meant that matches are now more readily accessible on US television.
Richards is not alone in the Bundesliga. There is Gio Reyna at Dortmund, Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen) and Matthew Hoppe (Schalke). Elsewhere, Weston McKennie is enjoying a breakthrough season at Juventus while Christian Pulisic is established at Chelsea. There is also Sergino Dest and Konrad de la Fuente (Barcelona), Tim Weah (Lille), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Reggie Cannon (Boavista) and Yunus Musah (Valencia). England still hope that Musah will declare for them, having won senior caps for the US only in friendlies.
Apart from Steffen, who is 25, all of the players are aged between 18 and 23, raising the prospect of them being in their prime for when the US co-hosts the World Cup in 2026. “We want to win every game and every tournament we are in but being able to play on our home soil in 2026 is something that gives us this extra motivation,” Richards says. “We want to make history by bringing the first World Cup back.”
Richards, who has one full cap so far, is not afraid to set ambitious targets or, indeed, to share them. For the last eight or nine years, he has stuck his new year’s resolutions on the mirror in his room so that he can see them each morning when he wakes up.
“My family say that if you are able to see your goals every day, it makes you want to work even harder for them,” Richards says. “This year, I wrote: to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and be a part of that team; to make at least 10 more Bundesliga appearances and to make Olympic qualifying and win the Olympics if selected. Also, off the field, to find a hobby and perfect my German.”
Richards’ German is already very good and it is because when he puts his mind to something, he lets nothing stand in the way, even if there are difficulties. At 16, he was devastated to be turned down by FC Dallas after a trial but there would be offers from other academies.
He accepted the one at Texans SC in Houston, mainly because he would get the chance to play FC Dallas at least twice in the year and show them what they were missing. Richards would help Texans SC to win their first ever national academy championship, beating FC Dallas along the way and, at the end of the season, he got what he wanted; FC Dallas took him on.
At Hoffenheim, Richards wants to develop under the manager, Sebastian Hoeness, and the assistant, David Krecidlo, who were his coaches in the Bayern youth set-up. He has started in six of the club’s seven matches so far. But the longer-term dream is to crack it at Bayern. Richards’ progress will be fascinating.