Richards recalls path from Birmingham to Bayern and expresses optimism for USMNT future
November 04, 2021
THE JOURNEY THAT American players take to get to the highest levels is sometimes an unconventional route. Some players like Gio Reyna and Tim Weah have a very direct route when growing up in soccer families based in soccer hotbed in the New York area and directly into a big European team. Some players come from MLS academies, experience success in the United States early, and then fetch impressive fees by Champions League Clubs – like Tyler Adams or Brenden Aaronson.
For Chris Richards, 21, the path has been a winding route. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, where college football dominates the sports landscape. At the time he grew up, local inspirations were hard to come by and MLS, let alone Europe, seemed like a distant dream.
But success in the area started to take root in recent years. Richards is now on loan at Hoffenheim from Bayern Munich but he is not alone. Brandon Servania is a regular at FC Dallas, and his younger brother Jaden Servania starts for the Birmingham Legion, the USL team in the area. Tanner Tessmann recently completed a seven-figure transfer from Dallas to Venezia in Serie A.
“Growing up from Birmingham, you see guys like Chandler Hoffman was a big name coming out of Birmingham and we were all kind of in awe of him when he got drafted to the MLS,” Richards said. “And then you see a few of us guys are making it over to Europe and just doing our thing. I grew up with Jaden, Brandon, Tanner…It's really cool to see the growth that Birmingham has had in soccer. I think Chandler started it with just kind of inspiring us to our younger generation, just getting us going and showing us that just because you're from Birmingham doesn't mean that we can't make it.”
“Back then we didn't have Atlanta United, we didn't have the Legion,” Richards continued. “I think the Silverbacks in Atlanta was like the closest thing to a professional team for us. You always have this dream that you want to go play in Europe, but you kind of put in the back of your head because you think that it's almost impossible for you… Coming here to Hoffenheim, it was kind of my chance to show that just because I'm American, just because I'm from Alabama doesn't mean anything. I can play with anybody or at least try to.”
But it wasn’t impossible for Richards – and Tessmann and Brandon Servania have also been able to make the trek to Europe (Servania is back in the U.S. after a loan to St. Poelten in Austria). The path for all of them has been through FC Dallas.
FC Dallas has had a big footprint in the world of Americas abroad and that essentially started with Weston McKennie who played nine years in the club’s academy. Others have moved after playing with the club’s first team for a number of years. Richards, however, has benefitted from the partnership agreement with Bayern Munich, Germany’s biggest club and one of the best clubs in the world.
But the bond between the FC Dallas players remains tight, even after they leave Dallas – either permanently, on loan, or on simple training stints in the off-season.
“A lot of us played in the academy together,” Richards said. “When they when they came over, I showed them around Munich and we've always kept in contact even since I've left the academy. They gained a lot of valuable experience, and it's kind of their first look into European football as well. And so, they were kind of saying how high the level really was and how close they were to making it in.”
Richards still keeps tabs on the players coming out of FC Dallas and is excited by the potential. Two players are currently gaining traction on a national and international level. Ricardo Pepi is one of the best teenagers in MLS and is now a starting forward for the U.S. national team. He is expected to make a move to a top European club soon, although not necessarily Bayern Munich. Meanwhile, Justin Che recently spent time on loan earlier in the year with Bayern Munich where he featured for the club’s U-19 team. He returned to FC Dallas for the second half of the season where he started but another move to Bayern is rumored.
“We've talked a little bit,” Richards said of Che. “He was here and he did well, even though the team got relegated. He put in some good performances and speaking with him and speaking with the guys there, they liked him…I've watched a few of his games back at Dallas and he's done really well, made a few Team of the Weeks, had some good performances. If he continues to go the way that he is. I don't see why he can't make it over here.”
“Ricardo Pepi, of course, he came over here and even though he didn't end up playing with the team, [he was] exposed to how close you are to actually making it to this level,” Richards said in shifting to Pepi. “He took that home and he flew with it. As you can see now, he's one of the most promising strikers coming out of the U.S.”
It isn’t yet known if any other American players will soon rise to the level of Bayern Munich, which is far beyond simply playing in Europe. Richards made a very quick transition once he made the move to Bayern from Dallas because unlike Pepi, Richards never even played for the Dallas first team. He essentially moved from the youth/reserve-team level to playing in friendlies with Bayern’s first team.
The transition was a wake-up call and the level of expectations were a learning lesson he remembers vividly.
“It's a machine. You get there, and they expect you to slot right in.” Richards said. “You're going into a team that's pretty much always had success and will continue to have success for as long as possible… The day I got there, they threw me into the Audi Tour with the first team and I was like: OK, this is much different than U-19 FC Dallas. You find that out quickly because they expect perfection and now 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, the first thing they expect you to be perfect.”
“You can't turn off for one second in training or in games because these guys will punish you if you make a mistake,” he continued.
Attention will soon shift to the national team which will assemble for a pair of important World Cup qualifiers. Richards acknowledged that the last window was both up and down with six points from three games but believes that the team left camp motivated and optimistic.
He points out that CONCACAF brings out its own challenges in that the games can be brutal, played in tough conditions, and that the team learned a lot with the loss in Panama last month. ("CONCACAF isn't as easy as some people come into it thinking...Not every game is going to be pretty, but as long as we get the results and we qualify, that's all that matters”).
The first game against Mexico, however, will be different. As Richards puts it: “that's one that we've always had circled on our calendar.” A win would go a long way towards putting the U.S. team in a comfortable spot in qualifying and in position to end 2021 atop the qualifying group.
Richards enjoys coming into camp. He is close friends with many on the team, and that friendship is one that pushes the players to be their best as none of them are afraid to call each other out. Similar to the relationship he has had with the FC Dallas group, the national team group brings out the best in each other.
“We're like a big group of brothers,” Richards said. “Even the veteran guys like Weston or Tyler, who are two years older than us - and they're like some of the most capped guys on our team. We know each other's personalities. We know what everybody's tendencies are and what guys don't like to do, but also when it's time to get going on the field, everyone takes it seriously. We have guys getting on each other's asses like Tyler yelling at them. We all know that Tyler's personality and to not take it personally. That's something that if we weren't such great friends that you know, sometimes it would rub off differently.”