To understand just how dramatic a change in fortunes Chris Richards experienced in the early stages of his budding soccer career, you need only consider two flights he took that came just two years apart.
The first flight was from Dallas to his home in Alabama. He spent most of it trying to sleep and not to cry after a failed trial with the FC Dallas academy that left him wondering whether he would ever make it.
The second flight was a charter from Munich to the United States, one he shared with the kind of soccer stars he could have only dreamed of playing with back when he was fighting back the tears on that rough trip home two years earlier.
Now, just six months after that charter flight, and less than a year after signing his first professional contract, Richards is set to be transferred to German powerhouse Bayern Munich after impressing during a six-month loan stint with Bayern’s U-19 team. Sources have confirmed to Goal the completion of a deal that will send Richards to Bayern for $1.5 million and a 40 percent sell-on clause.
The 19-year-old is the latest in the growing wave of young American players honing their game in Germany, a trend that has made it almost normal for top American teenagers to make the jump to Europe in their quests to follow the trail blazed by the likes of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie.
Few would have pegged Richards to be on this path back when he was playing in Alabama as a talented but undersized central defender. He took a trip to Texas hoping to secure a place with the FC Dallas academy, one of the best academies in American soccer, but FC Dallas’ coaches saw a player they didn’t think was ready to handle the speed of play at the highest level of the Development Academy, American soccer’s elite youth league.
“It was tough hearing. I thought my world was going to end,” Richards said. “That was my first time not making a team.
“I was devastated. I was crying. I wasn’t good at rejection.”
After a tear-filled phone call to tell his mother he didn’t make the team, Richards boarded a flight back to Alabama. He did his best to keep his composure, but admitted he broke down as soon as he sat in his mother’s car.
A week after that painful trip, Richards received a call from Houston Texans, another top academy team in Texas.
“Once Houston gave me the call and told me they’d be playing FC Dallas I thought this was easy, I have to go to Houston.”
Richards didn’t fly to Houston, he drove, knowing full well that another failed trial would mean a brutal ride home. That, along with the motivation to prove FC Dallas wrong, lit a fire in him that helped the youngster impress Texans coach and former MLS player Eric Quill.
“Right off the bat I could tell this kid’s got something really, really good,” Quill told Goal. “But he hadn’t grown into his body much. He was sort of gangly. The body type that I could see some people not thinking he could play.”
At the same time saw a potential star in the making in Richards.
“His ability to see the field and break lines with his passing - he’s a high-level passer from the back - and he’s just an athletic freak," Quill said. "He can jump through the roof. He’s just a kid you could see a real high ceiling with.”
Richards lived up to Quill’s lofty assessment, developing into a standout defender and helping lead the Texans to an improbable national championship run. Along the way the Texans defeated the same FC Dallas team that passed on him as a player, providing sweet revenge for the young defender.
“Every team when they play Dallas in the [Development Academy] it’s like the World Cup for them,” Richards said. “I had extra motivation because of what happened in the summer. As soon as I got the schedule I circled FC Dallas.”
Richards and the Texans defeated FC Dallas in league play, marking the first time the Texans had ever beaten Dallas in the older age groups. They went on to win the national championship, the first for the club, but before that victory, Quill had already begun to think about what would truly be best for Richards.
He believed his star defender would be better served by making a move to FC Dallas the next season.
That led Quill to approach FC Dallas academy director Luchi Gonzalez with the selfless offer of sending Richards and midfielder Christian Cappis to FC Dallas.
“Them coming back to [the Texans] would have been fine, but if they were going to really go somewhere in the game then time was of the essence and I wanted them to move on,” Quill said. “I told FC Dallas, ‘I’ve got these two players who are going to be pros at the highest level. I think you guys should take a look at them.’”
When Quill first told Richards what he was planning to do the youngster thought he was joking, but once he realized his coach was serious, the teenager was faced with a tough decision. Would he leave the club that believed in him to join a bigger club that had rejected him just a year earlier?
Richards eventually decided to follow Quill’s advice, and FC Dallas was on board, having just watched him lead the Texans to a national title.
It didn’t take long for FC Dallas to realize that not only was Richards good enough for its academy, he was good enough for a first-team contract. The MLS outfit signed him to a homegrown player deal in April. At that point the only issue was finding him playing time.
Due to his limited time with the academy, MLS rules left Richards facing a year-long wait before he would be eligible to play with the first team. Luckily for Richards, FC Dallas had recently entered a player development partnership with Bayern Munich, and a deal was reached to have the center back play with German club's Under-19 team on loan. The deal also included an option for the German giant to buy Richards.
Having a chance to play with Bayern’s youth team would have been enough, but Richards quickly found himself in the improbable position of being called on to join the senior side for the summer’s International Champions Cup tournament due to the club being short of available defenders.
“I walk into the locker room and the first player I see is Arjen Robben and I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way this is real. I was playing FIFA with him a few days ago. This doesn’t happen every day,'" Richards said.
“We were jogging around and I’m like, ‘These are the guys you see on TV at the highest level.’ But once we started playing I felt more comfortable and got over the nerves.”
Richards wound up playing against some high-profile opponents in the ICC tournament, including a starting role against Juventus in Philadelphia. Those matches, coupled with the chance to play and train alongside stars like Robben and David Alaba, provided the kind of education and confidence boost that helped Richards hit the ground running when he joined Bayern’s U-19s
“You can learn a lot from just watching how they play and how they act on the field,” Richards said. “Whether it’s the speed of play, or how fast they do things. Their vision, they’re seeing things two and three steps beyond what a regular player sees.”
Riding the confidence from the summer, Richards eventually joined Bayern’s U-19 team and he stepped right into a starting role, impressing through the fall season. And when he returned to the States and flashed his improving form while with the U.S. Under-20 national team during its run to the Concacaf Championship in November.
“Out of all the center backs I’ve coached I think he’s the one with the most potential,” U.S. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos told Goal. “He has unlimited potential. All the other guys you could tell they’re good. They’re solid. I look at [Matt] Miazga, [Cameron] Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown. I just think Richards has a really high ceiling. He also has great charisma, which other guys follow, and he makes a team better because of it.”
Bayern saw those same qualities in Richards, leading the German club to buy him, and now Richards will have his chance to continue developing and to live up to the lofty expectations he holds in the eyes of those who have seen him up close.
“This kid’s going to be the starting center back for the national team in the next World Cup. I completely believe that,” Quill told Goal. “He’s got more. He’s getting better and better and better. His ceiling is so high. He’s different than anything we’ve ever had as a center back because I think his range of passing is better than any center back we’ve ever seen in the United States.”