bundesliga

Chris Richards, from the USA to Bayern Munich via Hoffenheim, and no little adversity

Things haven't always been easy for USA international Chris Richards, but the 21-year-old centre-back has overcome financial setbacks, sporting rejection and racism to emerge as one of the Bundesliga's rising stars.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in March 2000, Richards got his very first taste of soccer at the age of three or four, playing indoor games during day care sessions at a local gym. His father Ken had been a semi-professional basketball player, getting the chance to travel and play in countries including Iceland, Bolivia and Australia, but he quickly realised his son's passion involved moving the ball with his feet and not his hands.

"He was maybe five or six and he said, 'I want to do soccer' - and my wife and I looked at each other, like 'soccer?'" Ken explained on the Scuffed podcast. "So, we signed him up. He was good because he was really fast for his age. Skill wise he wasn't very good, but he was good athletically, he could push the ball ahead and outrun people, score goals.

"He continually grew and I never pushed basketball on him, or anything. At eight or nine I introduced him to it, but I could always tell he had more of an affinity for soccer."

Richards pursued both sports into his teenage years, burning the candle at both ends. He would get up at 6am to report to basketball practice, and then head to soccer training after school. He ultimately chose to focus his attention on one of the two - in the hopes of earning a college scholarship - and soccer won out, perhaps helped by the fact that he hadn't yet undergone a significant growth spurt.

Richards' parents had to make sacrifices to make his footballing dream a reality. The global stock market crash of the late 2000s had major implications for their financial security, with Ken's business going under.

"We had to make serious decisions about what we could and couldn't pay," his mother Carrie explained to Bavarian Football Works. "Soccer was at the top of the list of things that we couldn't afford, but my husband insisted that soccer had to be a priority, and we sacrificed other things to be able to pay the dues, travel, etc."

Several years of ardour would eventually turn into seemingly overnight reward. Carrie spoke about her son's sticky notes on the mirror with goals he wanted to achieve. The first of those was to make the regional Olympic Development Program, which is a way to identify footballing talent in areas where the sport isn't very prevalent.

Chris Richards shows his religious beliefs every weekend in the Bundesliga before a game. - imago images

As part of the Alabama ODP, Richards competed in a regional team against sides from other parts of the US, as well as being selected to attend the IMG Academy and go on a tour to Argentina. The Richards knew this had to be a springboard, though.

After speaking to the family of Brandon Servania, who had left Alabama for the FC Dallas Development Academy in 2015, Ken made the decision to get in touch with the club’s academy director Luchi Gonzalez to request a trial. But this was to be young Chris' first major setback as the MLS side opted not to take him on.

However, his time in the Lone Star State wouldn't end there. Mere weeks later, Richards was in Houston and living with a host family as he joined Texans SC. It all came about as Eric Quill, the Texans U18s coach, was looking for a centre-back to help make his team title contenders.

A call with Alabama ODP coach Carl Fleming led him to Richards, to a weekend trial and ultimately to what Quill described as a "leap of faith", believing the young defender - who played as a central midfielder until the age of 14 - could "develop into something nice in a year".

And in that year, Richard didn't only have a growth spurt that took him to the 6'2" height he stands at now, but he developed his skills and mentality on the pitch. Even now he remembers and thanks Quill for the effort and personal investment made in him: "Eric really helped form me into the player that I am today. He took me from this kid in Alabama who was lanky and really didn't have the best technique - I just had raw talent - and he really helped form and mould me into the centre-back I am today."

His performances as the Texans won the national championship caught the eye of several colleges who made scholarship offers. Richards accepted a full ride from the University of North Carolina, which immediately lifted a huge financial burden on the family.

However, that next cross-country move never materialised as FC Dallas came back with another trial offer and eventually took him on, fulfilling a promise that he would train a lot with the first team. Richards signed a Homegrown Player contract with the club on 12 April 2018 - only weeks after Dallas and Bayern had announced a partnership for youth development.

He was part of the Dallas side that spent 10 days in Munich training under the auspices of coaches at Germany's record champions. And after catching the eye of academy director Jochen Sauer, Richards was signed on a six-month loan, despite having never played for the Dallas first team.

Watch: Bayern's Dallas connection

"When he found out that he was going on loan there, he was like a little kid on Christmas Eve," said mother Carrie. "It was like a dream come true and he couldn't believe that this was actually happening to him."

He would settle into Bavarian life with the Bayern U19s under Sebastian Hoeneß, but was given an even earlier taste of the big time when he was included in the squad for the 2018 summer tour to the USA, making his debut in the International Champions Cup win over Paris Saint-Germain.

With his loan coming to an end, Bayern made the decision to sign Richards permanently in January 2019 - the same month Alphonso Davies made his move from the Vancouver Whitecaps.

After a year with the U19s, he followed promoted coach Hoeneß to the reserves in the third division, which is the first professional level in the German footballing pyramid. Nominally a centre-back, Richards became first choice on the right of defence, starting 30 of the 38 games, as the FCB reserves sensationally stormed to the 2019/20 title in their first campaign back in the third tier.

Chris Richards (r.) helped the Bayern Munich second team to win the German third division, under the stewardship of now-Hoffenheim head coach Sebastian Hoeneß (l.). - imago images

A competitive debut for the first team came at the end of the season when Hansi Flick sent him on for Javi Martinez late in a 3-1 win over Freiburg on Matchday 33.

The dream was now a reality. After all the family sacrifices, Richards had said: "My goal is to be successful so that my parents never have to work again, I want to be able to take care of them for the rest of their lives. Their support, in everything I do, has always helped me tremendously."

Well, the boy from Hoover, Alabama was now a player in one of the biggest football leagues in the world, for the team that went on to win absolutely everything in 2020, and boasted the nickname "Texas" from none other than David Alaba.

The earlier 2018 move to Dallas had put him on the radar of US Soccer and he went on to start all five matches for his country at the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup - the tournament where a young striker named Erling Haaland scored nine goals in a single group game.

Chris Richards has a big role to play in the future of Bayern Munich on the football pitch. - CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images

Richards' senior debut came in November 2020 under coach Gregg Berhalter as he became one of the little over 800 people to have represented the United States in football. As he points out, he now has a very big platform as a footballer and frequently makes statements against racism. He even boasts a tattoo of Martin Luther King Jr.

"My mother's white, my dad's black. A lot of things he [King] stood for wouldn't have happened if he didn't stand for those things. So, he's a big inspiration, not just to me but I think to a lot of people back home," Richards said of the civil rights campaigner immortalised on his body.

Now it's him who serves as inspiration to fledgling American footballers. After following Hoeneß to Hoffenheim for a loan spell with the aim of gaining further first-team experience, Richards has become a key figure on the left of the back three - building on a position that was introduced to him those years ago by Quill.

"I played him at left centre-back because he needed to develop his left foot to snap balls out from 40 or 50 yards right on a dime with a quick release. If he was going to make it was going to have to be a part of his game," his former youth coach recalled.

Well, he has made it, overcoming financial adversity and rejection to progress from an area of the United States where soccer players are generally not supposed to come from to play in the Bundesliga for arguably the best team in the world - and he’s still only 21!