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'Now it's time to rock!' - USMNT star Richards on Bayern, the Bundesliga and adapting to 'grown man football'

17:00 GMT 04/11/2021
Chris Richards USMNT 2021
The young centerback is finding his way in the German top-flight on loan at Hoffenheim while pushing for a regular spot with the national team

It may not look like it, but Chris Richards is still adjusting to what he affectionately calls "grown man football".

On the surface, 6'2" Richards certainly looks like a grown man. He has already played for one of the best teams in the world, Bayern Munich, on several occasionss in real, meaningful games. He has already started for the U.S. men's national team, helping secure vital points on the road to World Cup qualification.

But, when you speak to him, it does not take long to be reminded that Richards is not, in fact, a grown man - at least not yet.  He still smiles like a young kid that is enjoying a ride that he never thought he would be on.

Take his recollection of his USMNT fandom, for example. These days, Richards finds himself in a competition with John Brooks and Miles Robinson to be one of the USMNT's starting centerbacks.

Despite his age and his relative lack of experience, Richards has caught the eye of virtually everyone that follows American soccer as a player that can, and should, be the team's next breakout star.

But, just a few short years ago, he was just a teenager that counted Brooks among his on-field role-models.

"I grew up watching John [Brooks] scoring the game-winner against Ghana in the 2014 World Cup," he says with a smile, referencing the Wolfsburg defender that is now both an opponent at club level and a team-mate with the U.S.

"I was 14 at the time watching him and now being able to play with him, it's pretty cool to experience and to be alongside him."

It has been seven years since 14-year-old Chris Richards watched a then 21-year-old Brooks score that goal against Ghana. And those seven years have seen Richards' career escalate faster than even he could have expected.

Born in Alabama, Richards did not grow up with a local soccer team. There was no Atlanta United in MLS, no Birmingham Legion in the USL. The local football was of the American variety, with the Crimson Tide reigning supreme.

And, when he initially tried out for the FC Dallas academy, he was rejected, all but convincing him that soccer probably would not work out the way he had hoped.

"You think that it's almost impossible for you," he says, "I was just kind of content with going the college route and maybe making it to the draft and things like that."

It did not work out that way. By the time he was 18, Richards with with Bayern  after impressing during a 10-day trial.  From that point forward, Richards' life kicked into overdrive.

At just 21, he has already made 10 appearances for the German champions. He has played both centrally and on the right, having never once played the latter before being thrust into the position at Bayern. He has assisted Robert Lewandowski. lifted three trophies, played in the Bundesliga and Champions League.

Not bad for a kid from Birmingham, huh?

But at Bayern, not bad is not good enough. And so Richards spent the tail end of last season on loan at Hoffenheim, looking to take his game from good to great. This summer, he opted to return to Hoffenheim to continue that development so that he can someday play his way into Bayern's plans permanently.

"We had five centre-backs at the time," Richards said, "and if I wasn't one of the first two or three, then I would have just been waiting around, and after playing for the last few months, I had to go somewhere where I was playing.

"They respected my decision, and they knew that it was the best not just for me but for them as well, as I will hopefully come back with 30 games."

Richards, who has already made eight appearnaces this season, remains in constant contact with Julian Nagelsmann and his staff, he says.

And at Hoffenheim, he has found a club that allows him to get a true test of the Bundesliga. He faces off with strikers that have the strength to bully him and the mind to outsmart him, not just in training but in legitimate battles on matchday. 

"It's a machine," he says of Bayern. "You get there and they expect you to slot right in and, at first, it's an adjustment because you're moving to somewhere you've never been before, speaking a different language.

"You're not going to a team that's kind of good or has had success in the past years; you go into a team that's pretty much always had success and will continue to have success for as long as possible.

"They expect perfection and you have to bring it every day. They don't care if you're 15, 16, 19. If you're going to train with the first team and play in the first team, they expect you to be perfect."

"I'm only 21," Richards continues. "I've played maybe seven months of first division football, so of course, I'm still adapting and just kind of getting used to everything in the league.

"It's grown man football. You kind of have to learn how to play against grown men who might be 10, 12, 13 years older than you. I wouldn't say I'm fully adapted because I think you can always learn and get better, especially as a centerback. We're not in our primes until mid-20s."

Richards is still a few years from his mid-20s, but he is already a player that the USMNT may be prepared to rely upon in the big moments to come.

He has earned just four caps so far, as Gregg Berhalter has eased Richards into the team. But, last month, when faced with his biggest test yet, Richards survived being thrown into the fire.

Alongside fellow youngster Robinson, Richards was named in the USMNT's starting XI against a very good Costa Rica team. The U.S. conceded just one minute in, but held firm  for the next 89 as they took one step closer to Qatar 2022 with a 2-1 win.

It was not the perfect performance from Richards. He mistimed one tackle that could have been a penalty and struggled a bit in the air. But he also showed every feature that give those that follow him so much reason to be excited: the passing, the range, the confidence, the ability to read the game.

As the U.S. prepares for games against Mexico and Jamaica in the coming days, Richards could play a vital part. Brooks has been left off the squad following a recent downturn in form, leaving Richards alongside the likes of Robinson, Mark McKenzie and Walker Zimmerman as the centerback group.

It is a group that does not have that much experience, but Richards is ready to play his part should he be called upon for another big game.

"I want to qualify for the World Cup, especially after the last cycle that our national team had and, of course watching it, you never want it to happen again, especially with the group of guys that we have.

"We want to qualify, we want to beat Mexico in this upcoming window. That's the thing that we've always had circled on our calendar."

After the international break, Richards will return to Hoffenheim and continue that push towards 30 games.

He will get those minutes under his belt, those experiences, those moments. And, when he returns to Bayern next summer, he plans on being a much better player than the one that left.

From there, who knows?

"Last year, it was kind of just me breaking into the door," Richards said, "and then this year, I'm gonna have 12 months at a club that that trusted me, and hopefully I can repay the trust with a bunch of good performances and have a strong year of first division football under my belt... Now it's time to rock!"

"I think if I continue doing what I should be doing here and I just continue to develop, I don't see why I can't push [Niklas] Sule, [Benjamin] Pavard, [Lucas] Hernandez, [Dayot] Upamecano, any of those guys," he adds.

"Of course it's one thing to say and and one thing to do it, and I have a lot of work to do, but I think if I just continue to do what I'm doing by next summer and really show myself, anything's possible."