Bayern Munich and USA starlet Chris Richards has been tipped to develop into one of the best centre-backs in the Bundesliga and beyond, with one of his former coaches suggesting the 20-year-old has the potential to "become the next Jerome Boateng".
It may seem a weighty claim for a player who only has a solitary senior appearance for Bayern under his belt, but such is Richards' potential that he has tongues wagging well beyond the walls of Säbener Straße. After all, there's a reason he has become only the second American to play for the record champions in the top flight, after Landon Donovan in early 2009.
"We've only seen the very, very beginning of him," Dave van den Bergh, who once coached Richards with the USA U19s, told The Guardian. "I think he can be a 10-year Bundesliga player. He can become the next Jerome Boateng if he is given the opportunity."
Watch: Richards on his Bayern dream
It was alongside 2014 FIFA World Cup winner Boateng that Richards lined up in his first and only Bundesliga outing to date, as a late substitute in the 3-1 victory over Freiburg on Matchday 33 last season. Six minutes on the pitch were sufficient for the Birmingham, Alabama-born youngster to take home a Bundesliga winner's medal, although it wasn't the only silverware he snaffled during a successful 2019/20.
Richards was a key figure for the Bayern reserves this term, helping Sebastian Hoeneß's side win Germany's third-tier championship. He made 30 appearances, starting at right-back before being shifted into central defence, and even contributed four goals as Bayern II finished a point clear of Würzburger Kickers and Eintracht Braunschweig.
Hoeneß, who has just taken the reins at Hoffenheim, admitted that Richards lost his focus for a short period at the start of his time in Munich, but quickly screwed his head back on to emerge as one of the standout players at a club currently brimming with young talent.
"It was only over three or four weeks," the 38-year-old recalled. "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."
That professionalism did not go unnoticed higher up the Bayern food chain, with senior coach Hansi Flick giving Richards his first call-up for the title-clinching win over Werder Bremen, which he spent on the bench. After his cameo against Freiburg, the USA U23 international continued to train with the Bayern first team – being put through his paces by the likes of Robert Lewandowski – and was added to Flick's squad for the remainder of the UEFA Champions League campaign, starting against Chelsea on Saturday 8 August.
Richards' progress has certainly been swift. He was invited to Bavaria for a 10-day trial in summer 2018, while still playing for Bayern's partner club FC Dallas, and so impressed the coaches that he was promptly snapped up by the U19s on a one-year loan.
"Of course, I wanted a long-term deal," Richards admitted. "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."
Richards was right to have faith in his own abilities. In January 2019, Bayern offered him a permanent contract through to June 2023, and within six months he had been promoted from the U19s to the reserves. Flick's senior squad now beckons. Having already had a glimpse of the Bundesliga, 'Texas' – as he is known to his teammates – could soon be getting a taste of the Champions League as Bayern go in search of a sixth continental crown.
"Chris Richards in the perfect player to coach, because he does everything you ask him to and more," insisted former USA U20s boss Tab Ramos, under whom Richards started all five of the Stars and Stripes' games en route to the quarter-finals of the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup. "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."
These are still early days for one of the Bundesliga's most highly rated US starlets, but Richards is on the right track as he looks to follow in Boateng's footsteps. Like the eight-time Bundesliga champion, he boasts an imposing frame (6'2", compared to 6'3" for Boateng) and reads the game superbly. He can also play with both feet and is comfortable bringing the ball out from the back. And the simple joy he derives from doing the job he loves also shines through.
"What makes Chris so special is his positive attitude," added Hoeneß. "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."
Bayern's backline is teeming with world champions – Boateng, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez – and Flick can also rely on the hulking brilliance of Niklas Süle and the explosive power of Alphonso Davies. But don't be surprised to see Richards making his mark in Munich over the coming months and years, and bringing a touch of star-spangled swagger to the Rekordmeister's defence.
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