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Beneath the jokes, Chris Richards is battling for his bright USMNT future

Jun 18, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; USA defender Chris Richards (4) reacts after defeating Canada at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
Facing uncertainties at Crystal Palace, Chris Richards still finds joy through national team triumphs and a steadfast focus on the bigger picture. (Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports) (USA Today Sports / reuters)

Chris Richards flashed his trademark smile, then sank into the plush lobby of a boutique hotel that, for a few fleeting days, had become his happy place. It was a crisp fall Friday in Hartford, Connecticut, one day before Richards would start his fifth of six consecutive A-team games for the U.S. men’s national team. For Richards, a 23-year-old center back, these USMNT camps had become something of an “outlet.”

“Coming to the national team always gives me a high,” he said in an interview that October afternoon.

And not just because he was playing, succeeding, building toward a bright future. Each camp, he explained, “kinda feels like a reunion.”

Several times a year, he and two dozen friends who’ve scattered across the Western world gather somewhere in America, their home, to play soccer. They stay at upscale hotels. They work but also chill and strengthen yearslong bonds. The trips remind some of youth tournaments, of long weekends in suburbia, of multi-game days and mayhem wrought by rambunctious teens. “Except we're like 15 years older now,” Richards clarified. And they’re not dashing down hotel hallways causing trouble. “But it's a lot of fun,” he said.

And fun is how Richards prefers it. “Life is already serious,” he explained, “so, like, why not take the piss out of it?”

He has developed a reputation as the USMNT’s jokester-in-chief. He’s a “grenade-thrower” and a “pot-stirrer,” veteran defender Tim Ream said recently. “He’s got a very quick wit to him,” assistant coach B.J. Callaghan said in June. He’ll pull impromptu pranks or crack clever jokes, sometimes in second languages. He has challenged Weston McKennie for the “funniest guy on the team” title — and “humbly,” Richards says with that mischievous smile, “I'll say I'm a bit funnier.”

This, to some extent, is who he has always been — upbeat, personable, outgoing. And it’s who he feels comfortable being around the national team. “You can just be whoever you want to be here,” he says. In a very serious sport, it’s something of a reprieve.

But the reprieve is always temporary.

Five days after we spoke, Richards was back in London, at Crystal Palace, fighting for his place at the Premier League club — and for his future.

He has played only five minutes of competitive soccer since that USMNT camp in mid-October. He has played a grand total of 24 minutes, in three brief substitute appearances, for Palace since late September. Beneath the radiant smile, he has been struggling in a cutthroat profession that has tested his resilience — and that has, at times, dimmed the magnetic personality that family, friends and fans have come to know and love.

Resilience pays off for Richards

Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Richards always liked to laugh — and often did, especially at home, with family. But as he hopped around the region, from school to various sports, he was also trying to figure out who he was. Racial dynamics in the region complicated his search for identity. As the son of a Black father and white mother, and as one of very few Black kids playing soccer in his area, “I was kinda too Black for the white kids … but then also I was too white for the Black kids,” Richards said last year.

He still wore a smile. He made friends almost everywhere he went. He seemed happy because he usually was, his parents, Ken and Carrie, both say.

“But I think [the smile was] also a way for him to disguise probably what's going on inside,” Carrie says.

Chris would also suffer when sports delivered disappointment. When West Ham staffers came to Hoover Soccer Club and invited a couple of teammates — but not 12-year-old Chris — to England for training, “he was really bummed about that,” Ken remembered. He also tried out for but initially didn’t make his local Olympic Development Program (ODP) team. “He almost gave up on it at that point,” Carrie says.

But Chris persisted. He eventually made the ODP team. Years later, he was “devastated” once again when he missed out on a spot in FC Dallas’ academy, and he called home crying, but each setback fortified him. “I think it made him more resilient,” Ken says. At age 16, shortly after the Dallas snub, Chris left home to join a separate academy, Texans SC, in Houston. A year after that, he got a second chance in Dallas and ran with it.

He also found himself in Dallas. He moved into an apartment with three teammates whom he came to cherish and trust. “That was my first time kinda being the jokester with my friends,” Richards says. They’d go to high school football games, to friends’ houses, to random shops in the region and dare one another to do “stupid stuff.” “You could be an idiot,” he says, because there were other beloved idiots around you. It was, in his 17-year-old mind, “perfect.”

It was also short-lived. Richards grew. His on-field development accelerated. Bayern Munich came calling. And an 18-year-old who’d just graduated high school moved seven time zones away, to a European superclub, into an environment that was, in his words, “much different.”

KLAGENFURT, AUSTRIA - JULY 21: Joshua Zirkzee of FC Bayern Muenchen and Chris Richards of FC Bayern Muenchen celebrates celebrates a goal during the AUDI Football Summit match between Bayern Muenchen and Paris St. Germain at Woerthersee Stadion on July 21, 2018 in Klagenfurt, Austria. (Photo by Josef Bollwein - Sepa Media/Bongarts/Getty Images)
FC Bayern Munich's Joshua Zirkzee and Chris Richards celebrate a goal during a match against Paris St. Germain on July 21, 2018, at Woerthersee Stadion. (Photo by Josef Bollwein - Sepa Media/Bongarts/Getty Images) (Josef Bollwein - Sepa Media via Getty Images)

Navigating the rigid German football culture

The environment was regimented, traditional, very German, and it helped shape Richards into a professional center back. It also seemed to suppress his personality. “That first year,” Carrie says, “I didn't think that he was the happy-go-lucky guy that we were used to seeing.” He was quiet, in part because he couldn’t speak German; but language wasn’t the only inhibitor.

He jumped straight into German lessons, and learned key phrases through football. Throughout his four years in the country, at Bayern and Hoffenheim, he gained enough fluency to partake in banter. He’d joke with Leroy Sané and Jamal Musiala, with David Raum and Oliver Baumann. “That was one of the main reasons why I wanted to learn German, is because I wanted to be myself,” Richards says. “I wanted to be able to be authentic.”

Simultaneously, however, he was navigating a new culture, new mentalities, new approaches to soccer, new ways of life. He was surrounded every day by German teens who were scrapping for a finite number of pro contracts — and whose first instinct likely wasn’t to befriend him. “When they see an American kid,” Richards said on Ream’s podcast, “they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna kill him. We’re gonna eat him up.’ That’s kinda how it felt.”

He didn’t and doesn’t mind the unrelenting competition; he embraces it. And to be clear, his off-field levity and on-field fire rarely clash. At the dorms on Bayern’s campus, where he lived in Year 1, he still found fun with four English-speaking teammates. And on the field, he continued his rapid ascent: to the reserve team, to the first team, to the Champions League, and beyond.

There is a strictness, though, and a seriousness, a ruthlessness, that accompanies professional football in Europe. And it doesn’t always carve out space for fun.

Richards learned “to read the room,” and “bite [his] tongue” if a quick-witted joke might rub senior players the wrong way. He also immersed himself in the ruthless culture and adopted its laser-focus on winning. He won a starting place on loan at Hoffenheim. He broke into the USMNT, and into a three-man rotation at center back in late 2021. He eyed the 2022 World Cup. And then an injury ripped it away from him.

World Cup heartbreak and its lingering toll

Richards transferred to Crystal Palace in July of 2022 with a $15 million price tag and a promising future. But less than a month into the season, he hurt his hamstring. His mind immediately raced to the World Cup. An initial MRI suggested he’d be fit in time for Qatar. The very next week, he says, “I took one step onto the pitch, and made a 2-yard pass, and re-tore [the hamstring] again — and it ended up tearing worse.”

For weeks, he rehabbed in disbelief and denial. He convinced himself that he’d make a speedy recovery and play in the tournament of his dreams. That’s what he’d tell Ken and Carrie whenever they asked.

“But I think, in the back of our minds, we kinda had the gut feeling that it wasn't gonna happen,” Ken says.

When that conclusion was confirmed, Carrie says, it was “heart-wrenching.”

Both parents traveled to London on Nov. 17 to be with Chris and comfort him. A few days later, they watched the USMNT’s World Cup opener — but Chris didn’t; “couldn’t,” he clarifies. “He went upstairs and went to bed,” Carrie says. Four days later, they dragged him to a pub to watch the U.S.-England game with some American Outlaws, and “it was cool to be around them,” Chris says. “Still was tough, though. Still was really hard.”

His parents offered a distraction. Without it, Carrie says, “he would've probably laid in bed — gone to training, ate, and went to bed.” He “would've been miserable,” Ken adds. In general, he has learned to separate life and soccer, to find joy elsewhere when soccer isn’t offering it. But this was different.

He also began speaking with a therapist around this time, working to unearth the emotions that he sometimes doesn’t want the world to see. “I try not to let people know when something's affecting me,” Richards says — but of course, it still affects him. And of course the fun subsides. When soccer becomes a struggle, “it can take a toll on you a bit,” Richards admits.

By the time his parents headed back home to Alabama in early December, they felt their son was in a better place. But by the time the Premier League resumed in late December, he was back on the Palace bench. He finally got a string of starts in January and February. But then a back injury — a “freak injury,” Ken says — interrupted the run; and Richards played only twice the rest of the season.

A year later, he feels settled in London. He recently moved into a new place just south of the River Thames. He knows his way around the city. He knows where to find “fire” Asian food, where to placate his shopping addiction. And he enjoys his co-workers at Palace, the humans he sees everyday.

But he is still not playing. The toll is accumulating. And the future now feels murky.

Soccer Football - Premier League - Wolverhampton Wanderers v Crystal Palace - Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton, Britain - April 25, 2023 Crystal Palace's Chris Richards in action with Wolverhampton Wanderers' Adama Traore and Pedro Neto REUTERS/Carl Recine EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club /league/player publications.  Please contact your account representative for further details.
Crystal Palace's Chris Richards (center) in action with Wolverhampton Wanderers' Adama Traore and Pedro Neto on April 25, 2023 at Molineux Stadium in Wolverhampton, Britain. (Carl Recine / reuters)

A continuing struggle for consistency

That same future was vivid as recently as June, when Richards rose above Canada and headed home his first USMNT goal. It helped clinch another CONCACAF Nations League title. And it “brought him back some joy that he had been lacking for a good long time,” Carrie says. It sparked a celebration in Las Vegas. And it seemed to establish Richards as a national team starter.

“We see him as an important piece to what we’re doing,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said in August. “I think he’s got a tremendous amount of potential.”

So he arrived at September and October training camps in good spirits. He started all four games. “Every time I come here, I'm playing, so that's always good,” Richards said in October. And every time he comes here, he enjoys himself. The team’s “brotherhood” unlocks his personality. The camps aren’t vacations; but at times, Richards said, “it kinda feels like a vacation, because of how the group is.”

“It keeps me going through the month,” he said in November, “knowing that hopefully I'll get a game or two with the national team.”

But then, in November, he didn’t get a game. The lack of club minutes caught up to him.

Without another national team camp until March, he returned to London staring down uncertainty. He is stuck behind two established starters at Palace. He does not know when he’ll get his next run of games. All he can do is tap into the resilience he learned as a teen, and recall his dad’s most frequent mantra: “Control the things that you can control,” such as daily effort.

At times, Richards admitted in mid-November, “it can be challenging to keep focused when you're not playing week in, week out. It's even harder to kinda keep your form.” He tries to maintain it in training, but “some days can be tougher than others, especially when you're not playing. The intense session one day after a game — featuring only the players who didn’t participate in the game — for example, sometimes “does your head in a little bit,” he said.

“But, you gotta just realize that it's a journey,” he continued. “It's not just what's happening at the end of the week. It's the bigger picture. That's kinda just how I look at it.”