A kid from Birmingham, Alabama does not find himself in one of the greatest youth academies in the world simply by chance. Chris Richards landed at Bayern Munich because of pure class he oozes from center-back, and he put that on full display this past month at the U-20 World Cup for the United States.
Barring an injury, Richards was never in doubt to make Tab Ramos’ roster for the team’s trip to Poland. He is head and shoulders above the second-best center-back in his age group in terms of intelligence, maturity, technical ability, and just about any other attribute you can rate a soccer player on. At the heart of the U.S.’s defense, Richards stepped up to the task of being his team’s defensive stalwart and reliable leader from the back line.
What stood out the most across his five starts in Poland was his ability to come away with the ball with every tackle he made. Against Nigeria’s sporadic offense, this skill quickly became a crucial component to his game that helped the U.S. walk away with all three points.
Akor Adams isolated Richards in a one-on-one and thought he had the center-back beat after just getting ahead of him from cut inside, but the Bayern defender had other plans. Though Adams had put about a yard of space between the two, Richards went in with a slide tackle that ended Nigeria’s counter and initiated one for the U.S.
The second half saw the Flying Eagles take a more direct approach through the middle of the pitch, often relying on long-range efforts or hopeful long balls in the box to create opportunities. On one occasion, though, a long ball found the feet of Aniekeme Okon instead, and it seemed the Nigerian forward was going to walk away from the situation with a goal. Another Richards slide tackle, however, provided the crucial intervention needed to prevent Okon from getting his shot off in time.
Cool under pressure
Richards’ defensive partner Aboubacar Keita also provided quick reactions to potential danger within the box, but Richards exhibited an air of confidence and composure in his defensive duties that would be expected of most season veterans. Keita, for example, was a train wreck under pressure at most points throughout the tournament, but Richards almost thrived in high risk-high reward scenarios in his defensive third.
After receiving a pass behind him, Richards looked pinned facing his own net as Ukraine’s Vladyslav Supriaha arrived to pressure him into a giveaway. However, in one composed, fluid motion, Richards turned to face the open stretch of field before him and caught Supriaha with a slight feint to the left. The little bit of trickery was enough for the defender to get around his man and play the ball forward for the U.S. to continue their forward momentum.
Moments later, Ukraine looked to hit the U.S. on the counter with a clearance turned long ball towards Supriaha. Richards read the situation well enough to intercept the ball but threw another feint while approaching it to slow the Ukrianian down and open up space for him to turn. Though a seemingly easy skill for defenders to implement when under pressure, Richards did very well to sell Supriaha on it twice within the span of three minutes.
Reading the game
As illustrated by Richards’ play against Supriaha above, Richards reads his opponents’ passes and intentions with an impressive sense of ease. When a ball over the top of the defense from time to time put himself and Keita into an uncomfortable situation, Richards almost always had a perfect conception of how a pass would come off and where its intended target was located.
Richards (in white) in action against Ecuador:
I can’t get over how perfect this defensive play was from Chris Richards. He stays with Alvarado step for step. When Alvarado speeds up, so does Richards. When Alvarado slows down, so does Richards. He perfectly cuts down the attacker's angle. Man, Richards reads the game well. https://t.co/35p2ojxKk0— Joseph Lowery (@joeInCleats) June 9, 2019
In an instance against Qatar, Andri Syahputra found himself with time and space to get a pass to the feet of one of his forwards. Realizing Hashim Ali was the closest potential target, Richards made the slightest adjustment to his positioning in that he stepped closer towards Ali. The move not only put him in a better position to intercept a potential pass to the Qatari forward, but it also did enough to ward off Syahputra’s attempt to find Ali entirely.
Room to grow
One caveat to Richards’ entire tournament, however, was illustrated in the U.S.’s final game, against Ecuador. As always, Richards showed immense physical strength equal to that of his South American counterparts and composure under pressure when on the ball. But the quickness of Richards’ opponent’s front four ultimately caused him to make a few mistakes uncharacteristic of his play throughout his previous matches.
It would be considered unusual for Richards to commit even a single giveaway in an entire match, given his clinical passing, but two within the first 25 minutes, as he did against Ecuador, was unheard of for the youngster. The giveaways were not so much the result of poor passes by Richards, as they were of Ecuador’s greater desire to intercept the ball before anyone else could get to it.
Equally strange was Richards’ tendency to lose his mark on players during set-pieces or in the build-up play to an Ecuadorian attack. Leonardo Campana broke Richards’ hold of him to get a header on a well-weighted ball into the box that forced David Ochoa to make a lightning quick reflex-save. The opportunity, again, was partly due to the chaotic pace at which Ecuador played when entering the final third, which Richards had been unaccustomed to playing against.
These minor blemishes on a great showing from Richards in Poland will be ironed out as he gets minutes under his belt with Bayern Munich II, which recently won promotion to the 3.Liga, elevating the team from the amateur Regionalliga to a professional league. Richards was one of five U-19 players to be promoted to Bayern II, a U-23 team.
But regardless of the division in Germany, the teams will play at you with lightning-quick attacks, especially in the Bundesliga, so Richards’ struggles with this style of play should minimize throughout the upcoming season. And even despite his struggles, Richards still was the key man of the U.S.’s build-up play, as the pass map by @11tegen11 illustrates.
As Tab Ramos’ most consistent performer throughout the U-20 World Cup, Richards has undoubtedly excited many United States Men’s National Team fans, not to mention the many Bayern Munich fans who kept up with his progress throughout the tournament.