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TSN EXCLUSIVE: Chris Richards knows "every day is an audition" as he grows for USMNT & club

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EXCLUSIVE — It’s been a very long road to regular, sustainable football for U.S. defender Chris Richards.

There’s always been high hopes for the American — he earned his first USMNT cap in late 2020 at just 20 years old, while still just a Bayern Munich youth product. Yet it’s only just the second half of the current season that he’s found regular first-team minutes for his parent club.

After two loans to Hoffenheim, Richards still had no way into the Bayern Munich first team, so he was sold to Premier League side Crystal Palace in the summer of 2022. Despite the new beginning, it was more of the same as Richards was stuck behind two excellent defenders, and the narrative refused to relent. Manager Roy Hodgson repeatedly trumpeted the talent Richards bears, and that he was simply unfortunate to be logjammed behind Joachim Anderson and Marc Guehi.

Even as that mantra became tiresome, it never got Richards down. “When you’re not playing, it’s easy to turn off in training, to…not necessarily not care, but to not give one hundred percent,” Richards told The Sporting News in an exclusive conversation while overseas with Crystal Palace.

“Growing up I’ve always been told that every day is an audition. It’s an audition to the coach to be able to trust you to get on the pitch, or showing your teammates you’re trustworthy and they can count on you. So every day is a trial.”

And when finally afforded an opportunity, even as it was far from the chance he expected, the American grabbed hold of the moment and refused to let go.

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“I was very much learning on the fly,” Richards said with a chuckle. “We had a player drop out due to injury last second, and Roy called me into the room. He said ‘Chris, you’re playing at the six today, and we have confidence you can do it.’ I said ‘that makes one of us.'”

Richards has been a central defender for much of his professional career, even dating back to when he was cut by the FC Dallas youth system as a 16-year-old. So when Palace boss Roy Hodgson told him on the day of the December 3 game against West Ham that he’d be playing defensive midfielder, it began a whirlwind-like learning curve.

“I wasn’t quite ready for it — there are certain similarities between center-back and center-mid, but not many,” Richards said.

In truth, Richards has spent nearly his entire career learning to change and adapt. A trip to Argentina with a developmental team at 16 saw Richards commit to soccer full-time instead of basketball. He was cut after a trial with FC Dallas a few months later, but would end up signing with them after another look the next year. He would verbally commit to playing collegiately at the storied UNC program, but a trial in Germany with multiple Bundesliga clubs would change everything, and he would make the European move once turning 18.

So it’s no surprise that after spending a few fruitless years trying to work his way into the Bayern Munich first-team squad, he took the move to England in stride.

“I think understanding you can’t take a second off, seconds decide the whole game,” Richards said of what playing in the Premier League the last two years has taught him. “I wouldn’t say you could get away with that in Germany, but in the Premier League they definitely will punish you more. So I think it’s about staying turned on for 90-plus, and understanding if you take a second off, that’s your ass.”

That level of concentration was critical as he spent time waiting for a chance to impress. With Andersen and Guehi playing exceptionally well, Richards could have no complaints about his place on the bench, even as Hodgson touted him as “the best American center-back” over Hodgson’s own former player Tim Ream.

Finally, after logging just 442 minutes in his first Premier League season, he got his chance, but it wasn’t what he expected at all. With Palace trio Cheick Doucoure, Eberechi Eze and Jeffrey Schlupp all unavailable for an early-December game against West Ham, Hodgson told the American he would be playing at defensive midfielder, where he’d never been deployed before.

While Richards understandably looked shaky at times, learning the new position on the fly, he grasped the chance and impressed. “I guess I played well enough for him to continue playing me at that position, but I wasn’t quite ready for it,” Richards said.

The American may be his own harshest critic, because that start was the first of a 16-game run where he would log a full 90 minutes of action, only stopped by an injury in late March. Along the way, he would score his first goal for the club, bagging the opener against Burnley with a header off a corner, just like he had for his debut international goal against Canada less than a year prior.

“It’s fun — I love keeping a clean sheet, but people play soccer to score goals, so it’s always nice to get my head on something,” Richards said of both moments. “Feeling the passion from the fans, feeling the excitement and energy in those two games, it meant a lot.”

While Richards has needed time to establish himself at the club level, he’s been a main component of the U.S. national team for a while now, which is the opposite of how most players see their careers develop.

For the 24-year-old, it’s USMNT camp that feels like home, while club duty is more of a means to an end.

“It’s dope going to the national team, it’s a brotherhood that comes from us having all played with each other from young ages,” Richards said. “I wouldn’t say we have cliques, but there’s age groups, so the 99’s and 2000’s played with each other, 98’s and 97’s played with each other…it’s really dope. We all come from similar backgrounds and similar struggles, so it’s good to get to camp where we can relate.”

Plenty has been written and spoken about how tightly knit the U.S. international squad is, and Richards says it comes from the open-minded nature of everyone to accept those around them, regardless of where they hail from.

“I think the openness of everybody helps,” Richards said. “It’s not like anyone has to fake their personality. We even have guys like Johnny Cardoso and Kristoffer Lund, their English wasn’t the best and they didn’t grow up in the U.S. but they feel like they’re a part of us.

“It’s about being open with each other, and being vulnerable. We’ve even had town hall meetings with each other — big therapy sessions — it’s just good to be vulnerable with guys you’re going to war with each other every day. I think that’s where it comes from, just being authentic with each other, and welcoming and open.”

Although Richards joked that their bond only goes so far — U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams, who plays for another Premier League club in Bournemouth, apparently wasn’t too keen on helping Richards grasp his new position at the club level. “Tyler’s not too friendly” Richards quipped with a laugh when asked if Adams was available for pointers on learning the position, saying his international teammate is “a dog when he’s on the pitch.”

The squad has been extremely vocal in their support of the U.S. national team head coach, even as loud criticism of his tenure remains in the undertones of the fanbase.

“We hear a lot of slander not just about how the national team plays but how Gregg coaches,” Richards said, “but we stand behind him. He’s got us this far, and hopefully we can take each other further.”

One repeated criticism in Berhalter’s coaching style is his attention to detail, which some have claimed is over the top, but to Richards it’s what sets him apart.

“I don’t mean this in a bad way — he’s very nitpicky, and he pays attention to detail,” Richards says of his national team boss. “If he sees something in training he’ll correct it right away instead of letting you make the mistake. He’s very detail-oriented, which is very much something that you need in a coach when you are only able to see each other for two weeks at a time.”

Berhalter’s ability to foster a close-knit connection within the squad has often been touted by players repeatedly over the last few years, something which Richards sees the effects of directly. 

“Gregg [Berhalter] made a comment in the last camp, he said ‘people in the military, who are they fighting for?’ and someone said ‘for their country.’ And he said ‘no it’s for the people right beside you.’ I think that’s a great example, we love each other off the field, and that makes it so much easier to play for each other on the field.”

Still, Richards knows he can’t switch off, with his club or national team, even for a moment to reflect. He says that while “of course I do sometimes think about where I came from and all the things I’ve done to get to here,” he mostly leaves that to his parents. “I’ve gotten this far in that amount of time, think about what I can do in the next six or seven years,” Richards explains.

Now an established Premier League starter, with both a Copa America and World Cup on home soil in the coming months and years at the national team level, Richards should factor heavily at both the club and national level for the near future. Still, he’s approaching every day just like he has for his entire career to this point — another chance to prove his worth to those who matter most.

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