In part two of our three-part series on Chris Richards’ journey to becoming a professional soccer player, we corresponded with Richards himself and also talked with his mother Carrie Richards and his coach at Texans SC Eric Quill, who gave Richards with the greatest gift any coach can give a player: opportunity.
Eric Quill was well-versed in the ups and downs of pursuing a career in professional soccer. A teenage phenom, Quill was offered a contract by Ajax Amsterdam, but declined the opportunity in order to attend college at Clemson University. However, after a highly successful freshman season, Quill decided to go pro, signing a Project-40 contract with MLS.
Maybe it was the perspective he gained from his youth or the years he spent on the pitch for clubs like the Tampa Bay Mutiny, the Kansas City Wizards, the Dallas Burn, and others that led him to see something in Chris Richards.
Though, at first, he just needed a good center-back for his team.
A leap of faith by coach and player
Quill, who just last week was named head coach of FC Dallas’ USL affiliate North Texas SC, has a strong passion for youth development. At his previous roles with Texans SC in Houston, Quill was charged with developing talent in the framework of a team environment.
In light of his personal background, Quill knew he had something special brewing on the U.S. Development Academy (DA) U-18 team for the 2016-17 season. The team was excellent, but it still needed a few pieces to make it a real contender for the national championship. That led Quill to Richards. Quill recounted meeting him for the first time:
I knew I had a special group, but I knew I needed a center-back and a center-forward. A couple of our coaches worked with the ODP [Olympic Development Program] and one of them [Carl Fleming] told us about a kid named Chris Richards, who was one of the better center-backs in ODP from Alabama. He said that he hadn’t seen him in ages, but he was worth a look.
I got his contact information and sight unseen called his parents to ask if they would be willing to come in for a weekend trial... When I first saw him, I thought, “Oh no, he’s this gangly kid. This doesn’t look like something that’s gonna turn out,” but once I started to see him play a little bit you could see the quality in him. You see that he had the potential to develop into something nice in about a year’s time. I took a leap of faith, as well as he did.
Carrie Richards, Chris’ mother, remember the time as a scary, yet exciting period:
That was crazy for someone to call you and say, “I want your son to come play for me, and I want you to drive him 12 hours to a city you’ve never been to to live with people you’ve never met and to trust me to do right by your son, and that everything was going to be fine.” We met Eric [Quill] and the host family [Michelle and Sean Easton], and we had to put a lot faith that we were making the right decision — and it was one of the best decisions that we ever made.
At the time, though, “We were all so nervous and had a lot of people here in town saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re sending your kid to these people that you’ve never met?”
Carrie Richards acknowledged that it was “emotionally hard” on the Richards family, and Chris probably felt homesick within about a month. However, Richards’ host family and new coach helped him stay focused. There was work to be done.
The trial period proved to be a “more than meets the eye” moment for Quill, who was not overly impressed when Richards sauntered onto the field. It did not take long, however, before Quill could see why Richards was so highly regarded.
First, I saw his ability and his vision to pass the ball through the lines from the center-back position. It’s very rare that you come across a kid that’s able to hide his body frame and fire across the grain. I’m a former basketball player, so I saw a point guard from the center-back position when I saw Chris. If you look at the game today, center-backs at the highest level have that ability to really penetrate lines with their passing, because they can see things and hide their body frame, and fire [the ball] with accuracy.
Although Richards was not yet an imposing physical specimen, Quill saw that he had the potential to fill out into a full-size defender. He said,
He was gangly kid, but when you meet his dad [Ken] and see his 6’4” frame, you could see where the physical projection was going. You could see he had all of the intangibles, and once he grew into his body, you could tell that he had something serious, and then it became about fine-tuning his game.
Almost immediately, Quill identified areas of Richards’ game that he might refine. He felt that certain adjustments could potentially make Richards a true force on the back line. Quill explained how he helped Richards develop his ability to launch long balls like Jerome Boateng:
As a center-back, [Richards] had a long wind up when he tried to hit balls 40 or 50 yards and we need to have him develop a quicker release. That’s what we put the focus on. I played him at left center back because he needed to develop his left foot to snap balls out from 40 or 50 yards right on a dime with a quick release. If he was going to make it was going to have to be a part of his game. He could pass 15 yards on the ground accurately which is great, but he had to have a better range.
Cultivating the pro mentality
For all of Richards talent, the game came so easy to him that he sometimes appeared indifferent to what was going on around him. Quill set out not only to hone Richards’ skills on the pitch, but also to cultivate a professional mentality that would prepare him to embark on a professional career.
I had to work on his mentality a little bit because Chris is a very laid back kid and some people take that as not caring or he’s not into it. I just thought he was so confident, so smooth, and he read the game so well, that he never really had to break into full speed.
If you are going to be a pro and have that mentality to be in the lineup from week to week, you have to train like you’re going to be playing in a game.
Quill admitted that he was harder on Richards if he saw the youngster underperforming his own massive potential. “I played at the highest level and I knew what a future professional should look like, and when it dropped below what I thought it should be, I called him out it,” Quill remembered. “I worked with Chris on those things he needed to do to stick around for a long time,” he said.
But, Richards was “just an exceptional kid. We saw such a high ceiling for where he could go as he was growing into his body,” Quill remembered. In fact, Richards had a growth spurt during the year he spent with Texans SC that saw him reach his current height.
With Richards personally excelling, college scholarship offers poured in for Richards, and he eventually accepted a full ride to the University of North Carolina.
Chris Richards knows that Quill’s personal investment in him, played a huge role into shaping him into the player that he has become today.
Eric really helped form me into the player that I am today. He took me from this kid in Alabama who was lanky and really didn’t have the best technique — I just had raw talent — and he really helped form and mold me into the center-back I am today. FC Dallas helped me as well, but Eric really helped me gain confidence playing at a high level and he put me on the platform to go to FC Dallas, and that’s the reason I am here today. Eric has had an amazing impact on my career, and I know he’ll have an amazing impact on many other players’ careers at the USL team in Dallas.
As for Carrie Richards, the realization that her son had at last earned a tuition-free scholarship was a monumental day. “That was one of those days that we were in tears,” she said. “That scholarship would have lifted a huge burden from our family for financial reasons.” But circumstances conspired to lift Richards even higher.
Discussing the strategy and implementing a philosophy
In no uncertain terms, Quill is dedicated to all of his players and has a strong belief in developing youth. What he saw in Richards, however, was a chance to work with a player who had the potential to reach even greater heights than a college scholarship or a domestic career.
For Richards, it was not a silky smooth transition on the pitch. There were a lot of learning moments, but the Alabama native persevered. Carrie Richards on how intense it was for her son:
His practices in Alabama were not like his Academy practices. There was a lot more training and a it was a bigger commitment. I think there was a part of him that said, ‘Can I do this? Am I physically and emotionally ready to do this? Is this what I want or do I just want to come home. It was hard for everybody and every time we saw him it was an emotional goodbye.
But that work paid off. Richards and Texans SC became national champions that year. That success poised Richards for the next challenge — a return to FC Dallas.
Another opportunity at FC Dallas
The national championship victory and Richards’ own performances in league play against FC Dallas convinced the MLS club that Richards was now ready to take his game to a higher level of development. As painful as it would be to see Richards leave Texans SC, his coach also felt that his work was done. Quill remembered telling his player to seize the opportunity:
I told him and his family that once he had what he had needed then it would be time to move him on. I knew when Christian Cappis and Chris Richards had outgrown my environment that it would have been pure robbery if I would have kept them. Coaches need to think on behalf of the kids instead of themselves, the team, or the club.
It was another moment that caused Carrie Richards to reflect on the personal investment that Quill made in Chris and how selfless he was in pushing him to take an offer with FC Dallas. Carrie said, “[Quill] had always promised us that if any other opportunities came up he would let Chris go and push him to go. He stood by his word and he did.”
Quill told Carrie that FC Dallas wanted Chris to try out again:
It was a situation where we said, “What do we do?” But Eric said, “You have to do this. If Chris wants to aspire to do anything more than college soccer, then this is what you have to do.” FC Dallas promised that he would train with the first team a lot — and he did.
Richards’ quick progression at Texans SC and FC Dallas also began to open some eyes internationally, specifically in Germany, but it seemed like too great a risk at the time to go overseas to uncertain tryouts with Bundesliga clubs rather than take what FC Dallas could already offer. As it turned out, the Bundesliga — and specifically Bayern Munich — came with Richards right to Dallas. As Carrie Richards explained,
We signed the homegrown contract and right after we did, FC Dallas did the partnership with Bayern Munich, which was another way for [Chris] to get where he really wanted to be. He hadn’t been with FC Dallas for a year, so he wasn’t eligible to play with their first team and he was still in high school, so we didn’t want him to play with the USL team until he graduated. He graduated in June and right around July 1st he was put on a loan, which led to where we are today.
Seizing the moment for player and coach
For Quill, it was obvious that Richards had to take the next step. He acknowledged that, while he played a part in helping Chris Richards reach Munich, it was Richards’ hard work, dedication, and fortitude — and above all, the confidence of the people closest to him that carried him.
Chris took the trial at FC Dallas, because he wanted to explore the high-level options on his own before he came back the second time. He had the ambition to seek something that was outside his natural environment, and that says a lot about the kid — and the parents as well. When I came calling, they let him take this leap of faith because they obviously saw something in him, too. When you have enough people believing in you, and you have to have the accountability as a player not to mess around with the belief that people are showing in you... I think he felt a responsibility to get down to work.
As her son is now “getting down to work” at one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world, Carrie Richards felt that Quill’s belief in Richards and his conviction to do right by his players — even if it means losing them — made all the difference for her son:
It only took one coach to believe in him and to push him and, had that not happened, he wouldn’t be where he is. Coaches can make such a difference in kids’ lives. Had Eric not decided to tell us about Dallas, we would have never known and it would have changed our lives in a different way. Chris would be at North Carolina and not in Munich.
Check back tomorrow for the third and final part of this series.