Chris Richards' loan move from Bayern Munich to Hoffenheim looks to be a win-win-win situation for all involved, with the player and both clubs set to profit from the American's five-month spell in Sinsheim.
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Only three teams have conceded more goals than Hoffenheim's 34 in the Bundesliga this season - all three of which are currently in the bottom four of the league standings. Needing to stem the tide and, ideally, jostle for European qualification by the end of the campaign, Hoffenheim identified Richards as their preferred target.
Their defensive woes have been largely down to serious and long-term injuries to three of the club's first-choice centre-backs: Ermin Bicakcic (cruciate ligament), Benjamin Hübner (ankle) and Kevin Akpoguma (thigh), all of whom are expected to remain sidelined for the foreseeable future.
"For us it was unbelievably important that we bring in a strong and promising player at centre-back," said sporting director Alexander Rosen. "Given our ambitious aims in the second half of the season, it was important to have a good alternative in that position and we believe we’ve found that person in Chris Richards."
The Birmingham, Alabama native has not been recruited merely to make up the numbers; he is there to play. "Chris is strong in the tackle and is a very quick defender," Rosen praised. "He's already played for Bayern despite the fierce competition for places in their squad."
Richards made his senior Bayern debut at the end of last season and featured regularly in the first half of 2020/21, appearing against Schalke on Matchday 1 and RB Leipzig on Matchday 10, as well as starting - and providing an assist for Robert Lewandowski - against Hertha Berlin on Matchday 3.
In total, the 20-year-old has been in Bayern's matchday squads 12 times in the Bundesliga this term, while he has also made three outings in the UEFA Champions League, starting twice. He also became a full USMNT player at the end of last year, debuting for Gregg Berhalter's side in a friendly against Panama in November.
As such, Hoffenheim are getting a promising young defender with top-level experience. Furthermore, the nature of the transfer - a loan until the end of the season - also means they won't have a lopsided squad when that aforementioned trio of defenders are fit and available again.
For the player himself, the advantages are obvious: a clearer path to more regular first-team football. Richards' progress at Bayern has been remarkable, and even being included in the squad of the reigning European champions is an achievement in itself.
Richards is aware of that, and knows he needs more top-level exposure to keep improving. "I'm happy to be here and to play for TSG," he said at his unveiling on Monday. "Hoffenheim have a really good tradition of building up young players and making them into some of the best players in the world. Hopefully, I'll get a lot of playing time here and I’ll be able to show the Bundesliga and the world that I’m a good player, that I can win games and play to my potential."
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Süle, after all, came through the ranks at Hoffenheim before joining Bayern in 2017, while fellow Bayern teammates Alaba and Serge Gnabry also had successful loan spells at the club before returning to Munich and establishing themselves in the first team.
As an established breeding ground then, Hoffenheim's credentials are without question. But there is another factor in Richards' favor: head coach Sebastian Hoeneß.
The nephew of former Bayern president Uli Hoeneß, he was in charge of Bayern's U19s from 2017 to 2019, and he guided the reserves to the third division title in 2019/20 before accepting Hoffenheim's offer at the start of this season. Richards was a key part of that triumphant side, playing 59 times under Hoeneß in two seasons under his wing.
"I'm very excited to be working with him again," Richards said. "We had a great time together at Bayern and I really thrived under him. Hopefully, he can bring the best out of me again. I'm looking forward to getting going."
All of which bodes well for Bayern. From their point of view, rather than having an ambitious youngster sit on the bench, he can instead gain priceless top-level experience and return to Munich a better player when the loan is over.
"Chris is a huge talent," said Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic of the move. "He was one of the cornerstones at centre-back of our second team in the third division, and he's gained experience with the first team, including in the Champions League.
"Together we decided that Chris will use these months in Hoffenheim to take the next step in his development. We're sure TSG will have a lot of joy with him."
Richards echoed that sentiment: "I'm looking forward to taking the next step in my development here. It's important for me to get more match practice in the Bundesliga now. I've got big aims and I'd like to stake my claim for other tasks at Bayern."
If that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn't. Things can happen quickly in football, as plenty of North American youngsters alone have demonstrated in the recent past: just look at Alphonso Davies' breakthrough at Bayern last season, or Gio Reyna and Matthew Hoppe at Borussia Dortmund and Schalke respectively this term.
After all, Boateng is 32 and not a long-term option, while Süle has been deployed at right-back recently. So having an older, wiser Richards back at the club older of summer 2021 can only spell good news for the defending Bundesliga champions.
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