Tuesday, October 26, 2021

SSFC Spotlight: Chris Richards embarks on another loan at Hoffenheim

The United States Men’s National Team started the journey to the World Cup, while simultaneously undergoing the long-term process to determine the 23 best players. The final roster may end up being significantly different than the current version, with Chris Richards potentially adding some needed depth to the back line. The 21-year-old defender is on loan at Hoffenheim from Bayern Munich, looking likely to start for an entire season in the Bundesliga. With a little more development and experience, he may vault from the fringes of the pool and into contention for Qatar.

Richards was born in Birmingham, Alabama, a member of the growing national team cohort from the Yellowhammer State. He played with the Birmingham Youth Soccer Association and Hoover Soccer Club, winning multiple state cups with the latter organization. At 16, the winger-turned-defender moved by himself to Houston to play up an age level with Texans SC, claiming the 2017 USSDA National Championship and learning to adjust to a new environment.

“It was tough for me at first,” he told the Hoover Sun. “Was this the life for me? Is this what I wanted to do? It took a toll on me at first, but I knew I was there for a reason, so I strapped on my boots and got to it.”

Bavarian Football Works published a wide-ranging three-part series on his journey. The series analyzed his tough decision between pursuing basketball and soccer, his father a professional player in the former sport. There is also an interview with his mother, discussing the challenges of progressing through the complicated youth landscape.

In 2017, Richards joined the FC Dallas youth academy and signed a Homegrown contract the next year, pending the fulfillment of league eligibility requirement. Due to a strategic partnership between the clubs, Bayern Munich brought the teenager in for a trial and offered him a year-long youth loan, claiming to have “a lot of confidence” in his future success. He appeared in summer friendlies with the German giants and became a starter for the U-19 team, earning praise from then-manager Niko Kovač for his talent and hard work in training.

Six months later, a suitably impressed Bayern pulled the trigger on a transfer, sending a reported $1.5 million to FC Dallas, for whom Richards never made a professional appearance. He signed a four-and-a-half year deal through June of 2023. The move was described as a “landmark moment” by the club, hoping to further expand into the American talent market.

“We are very happy that we have agreed [to] Chris’ transfer from FC Dallas,” said academy manager Jochen Sauer. “Chris has represented us very well in the last six months and we are convinced that he will continue to develop well here… We see great potential in him.”

Despite receiving interest from Barcelona, Valencia, and other Bundesliga sides, Richards began playing with the reserves in the summer of 2019, starting in 30 matches and scoring four goals in the third division, overcoming an early slip in focus that could have derailed his young career. Bayern II won the 3. Liga but was not promoted due to federation rules. He even made his first-team debut, playing six minutes in a 3-1 over SC Freiburg. Total Football Analysis praised his versatility, flexibility, and composure on the ball in the possession-based style.

His success continued the next half-season, amid continued worldwide transfer interest. Richards played in a total of seven senior matches: three in the Bundesliga, three in the Champions League, and winning the DFL-Supercup over Borussia Dortmund. In February, he was sent on loan to Hoffenheim, joining a club struggling with injury issues and general defensive woes.

On the “perfect loan,” Richards played in nearly every possible Bundesliga and Europa League match for Die Kraichgauer. His coaches were previously in the youth setup at Bayern, well-informed with how to maximize his abilities and continue the development process. A hamstring problem kept him out of the final three fixtures of the season.

Hoffenheim looked to sign him permanently but was unable to convince the parent club of a sale or meet the reported $12 million price tag. “He fulfilled exactly the need we were looking for,” Sebastian Hoeneß said at the end of the loan. “We knew what he could do. Now he heads back to Bayern.”

This season started much the same under new manager Julian Nagelsmann. Bayern took another long look at Richards, deploying him in the league and domestic cup. The club ultimately opted for another loan to Hoffenheim but also extended his contract through 2025. A seamless transition, he started in his first available match and played 90 minutes at center back.

His career may eventually lead away from Bayern, as the club appeared willing to part with him this summer. In an interview with France Football, Richards indicated that the process can occasionally be difficult, leading to self-doubt while waiting for an opportunity. Whatever decision he makes will also have an impact on his international future, which is awaiting true liftoff.

Richards is a long-term member of U.S. national team program. He started all five matches at the 2019 U-20 World Cup, a run that ended with a quarterfinals loss to Ecuador. His international debut came last year, appearing as a substitute in the 6-2 friendly victory over Panama. The defender has three caps in total, on the periphery of Gregg Berhalter’s immediate plans.

“Chris is one of our central defenders of the future,” the USMNT manager told dBild in September of 2020. “I like his development very much. I find the cooperation between Bayern and the USSF to be outstanding. Together we’re trying to develop a great player from a great talent. Bayern has a plan with Chris.”

At 6’2”, Richards is a versatile defender capable of lining up at fullback and center back, appearing to prefer the latter position. With Hoffenheim, he has handled the differing responsibilities of three-player and four-player back lines, which could prove useful on a national team that alternates between several formations. His game has drawn comparisons to former teammates Jérôme Boateng, particularly in regards to size and “reading of the game.”

His athleticism is frequently cited as an asset, with Hansi Flick praising his ability to win headers. Richards possesses an impressive passing range and can break multiple lines. Perhaps more important is his “positive attitude,” with Bayern officials describing him as “a joy to work with.” From a young age, the defender was considered a highly intelligent problem solver that would figure out drills and take advantage of situations, thriving when anticipating the opponent’s moves.

Richards has admitted his hopes are to be a “main player” for the 2026 World Cup. However, he is striving for a spot on the 2022 squad, which might not be too far outside the realm of possibility. The national team is still figuring out the center back depth chart, which is shallower than previously imagined, especially after the injury of Aaron Long. A week in, week out starter for a mid-table Bundesliga club should at least receive a chance to prove his quality and fit during qualifying.
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