In part one of our three-part series on Chris Richards’ journey to becoming a professional soccer player, we spoke with his mother, Carrie Richards, who detailed the emotional labyrinth and chance encounters that led the center-back prospect to achieving one of his dreams: a professional contract with the German giants, Bayern Munich.
When Bayern Munich officially announced that it had signed Chris Richards, it marked the culmination of a scary, exciting, and ultimately fulfilling journey through the youth soccer ranks for the Hoover, Alabama, native.
While it was Richards’ natural talent, hard work, initiative, and courage that led to his career-defining contract signing last week, it was a dedicated and loving family that helped guide him through the treacherous terrain of pursuing his dream of playing professional soccer.
“It’s almost unbelievable, and there’s a part of us that doesn’t feel like it’s real,” Carrie Richards said in an exclusive interview with BavarianFootballWorks. “Everything happened so quickly. It’s a huge accomplishment, and we’re super proud of him. Everything that he’s put his mind to, he’s been able to achieve.”
Welcome to the #FCBayern family, @eastmamba! https://t.co/7jgd31h05N— FC Bayern US (@FCBayernUS) January 25, 2019
A natural athlete — but on the hardwood or on the pitch?
Growing up in Alabama, soccer was not sole focus for Richards or his family. His father Ken played college basketball at Birmingham-Southern College before embarking on a career in international basketball — with stops from Iceland to Bolivia to Australia.
Richards’ mother played youth soccer growing up but stopped when she outgrew the available options for girls. As in many areas of the United States, soccer just wasn’t a major priority in Alabama during his parents’ youth — or really even Richards’ early years.
Although Chris showed promise on the pitch at an early age, those around him expected his future to be on the hardwood.
It was always my husband’s aspiration for Chris to play basketball and not soccer. It took a lot of getting used to in terms of getting know more about soccer. In Alabama, soccer is not very popular, but he’s always had these big aspirations.
Richards started playing soccer, and he was good at it — really good. Little did they know how that would play out. “We got him out to play soccer just to get him active,” Carrie Richards said.
But he was just very natural and he enjoyed it. We started him out in a rec league, but he wasn’t being challenged so we moved him to club soccer. He started at eight or nine playing club soccer.
Even as Richards became ever more dedicated to soccer, he continued to play basketball into high school and was eventually forced to decide whether he wanted to chase the dream on the pitch. Carrie Richards described his daily routine:
Personally, he kind of went back-and-forth between basketball and soccer until he left here for Houston. He would get up at 6AM for basketball practice, I would pick him up after school, and we would go straight to soccer practice. We would do that every day.
Incredibly, it may have been the timing of Richards’ growth that tipped the scales definitely in favor of soccer. His parents, both college graduates, hoped that their son could win a college scholarship. But which sport?
With him being undersized at the time as a sophomore — he was probably 5’9”, 130 pounds — but with the way things worked out it was like there was a plan for him. Had he been 6’3” already as a sophomore, I don’t know know if we would have pushed him more toward soccer or basketball. It could have gone either way.
Still perhaps too small for basketball but just right for soccer, Richards made his choice.
Making ends meet to chase an unlikely dream
Many parents struggle when their child seems to possess elite athletic ability. Some push their children beyond their real ability. Others are pulled along by their child’s relentless pursuit of a dream. At least the sport itself is usually a familiar game, but the Richards family found themselves in unfamiliar territory.
Soccer was a sport they didn’t fully understand — at least on a global scale — and its culture in the United States is difficult to navigate. How do you ensure your child is in the proper place for his development, when you don’t even know what the best options are? The Richards were still working to learn what they were getting themselves into by allowing Chris to chase a increasingly serious dream when another complication arose.
When the Great Recession of 2008 hit, the Richards family was one of many affected by the financial crisis. Carrie Richards described their decision to support their son’s passion.
When the market crashed my husband was self-employed and his business went under. We had to make serious decisions about what we could and couldn’t pay. Soccer was at the top of the list of things that we couldn’t afford, but my husband insisted that soccer had to be a priority [for Chris], and we sacrificed other things to be able to pay the dues, travel, etc.
That commitment was one of many great leaps of faith that the Richards family took that led to Chris’ future success, but the outcome was anything but certain at the time. Bolstered by supportive parents and two equally encouraging siblings — Mackenzie (13) and Christian (6) — Chris was about to go on an amazing journey that was far from easy on him or his family.
Navigating the treacherous waters of youth soccer
As a young player, Richards had his first taste of “elite” club soccer in Alabama, when his youth team won the state title. The next season, Richards’ team played other top teams from the region. The experience was eye-opening.
We would travel once a month to Georgia, Tennessee, or Mississippi for a weekend and play their number one and number two teams. We weren’t very good, and it really broke your heart to travel to all of these place and lose by a lot; but it really opened his eyes. We went to nationals in Oklahoma and we got killed by a Texas team something like 12-0 or 13-0, but it showed how much bigger and better the teams are in other areas of the United States.
It was during this period that Richards virtually lucked into his career as a center-back.
He originally played center midfield, and one time a teammate got hurt and Chris had to move back there. And, he fell in love with the position. He didn’t even start playing there until he was 14.
The Richards family now began to realize that Chris might be a big fish in a small pond. His parents began to explore different options that would allow Chris to fulfill his ever expanding dreams.
When he was probably 10 years old, he had a sticky note on the mirror of all these things he was going to do. One was that he was going to make the regional ODP [Olympic Development Program]. The next was that he was going to get a D-1 scholarship, and then he was going to play in MLS. It never said anything about European soccer, but back then for him, quite honestly, that wasn’t even a “thing” for him.
In just a few years, European soccer would be more than just a “thing” for Chris Richards. It would be the only thing.
The next step: the Olympic Development Program
Richards’ first major step toward a professional career was a tryout for the Alabama Olympic Development Program (ODP). Viewed as a supplementary program for kids in areas that do not have a Development Academy (DA) club or an Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) club, the ODP is an important vehicle for identifying talent in areas where soccer is not a prominent major sport.
The ODP was a great opportunity for Richards. If he could excel on this stage, doors might open, and important people might take note. Carrie Richards knew that if Chris was going to make the leap from Alabama, he would have to perform under pressure in the ODP:
Chris got invited to tryout for the Olympic Development Program (ODP) and they met every so often for practices. They had a regional team where you would travel and play other regions from the United States. Chris was selected from one of the regional teams to attend a camp at IMG Academy. That kind of opened the doors to be seen because up until that point interest from colleges was few and far between. Him being on that ODP team helped him be seen, especially when he did the IMG camp and also when he went to Argentina.
Richards’ ODP experience set in motion a chain of events that would change his life forever, but the road would not be easy.
Tryout at FC Dallas: one door closes
The Richards family began to look beyond the ODP to help Chris reach his potential, but it was increasingly difficult to find such a place in Alabama. At a loss, Richards’ father, Ken, reached out to another family from Alabama that had found themselves in a similar predicament: the Servanias.
Brandon Servania moved from Alabama to FC Dallas in 2015 to join the club’s Development Academy (DA) team. From there, Servania went to Wake Forest, where he had a very successful freshman season before signing a homegrown contract with FC Dallas.
Ken Richards wondered whether Chris might make the same leap from Alabama to an MLS academy. He “took a long shot and contacted Luchi,” Carrie Richards said, and asked if Chris could tryout. The director of FC Dallas’ academy at the time, Luchi Gonzalez, of course, is a former international player and MLS star, who has since become head coach of the first team at FC Dallas.
The trial with FC Dallas was a seminal moment for Chris Richards, but there was no storybook ending.
Luchi let him tryout, but Chris didn’t make the team. I remember that phone call and how heartbroken he was. Picking him up from the airport, he was crushed. It was hard for us, too, because it was the first time a door had been closed. Everything had been easy to that point. He had always made every team he wanted to make. He was a good player, a good student. It just didn’t work out.
When one door closes, though, another opens. Chris’s determination would be rewarded soon enough, but from an unexpected source. His mother remembered the incredible opportunity that followed the tryout for FC Dallas:
One of his ODP coaches mentioned to [Texans SC coach] Eric Quill that he had a kid that Eric might want to take a look at, because Eric was looking to add players to his team in Houston. I don’t think it was even a week [after the tryout in Dallas] later that Eric Quill called and said “I heard about your son.” I don’t think he even knew Chris had gone to Dallas, and he basically said he would like Chris to move to Houston and live with a host family and play for his team.
The Richards were about to make another leap of faith. In the next stage of Chris’ journey a coach with a selfless attitude, great vision, and true dedication to doing right by his players would push him into the global soccer stratosphere.
@eastmamba's path to #FCBayern!— FC Bayern US (@FCBayernUS) January 24, 2019
Check back tomorrow for Part Two of this three-part series.