Getty Images

Twelve months ago, Chris Richards looked like he would be heading to the summer's Copa America in much the same position as so many of his U.S. teammates. He would be one of the many vaunted names who were "playing" in Europe's top five leagues, but only if you put a couple of chunky air quotes over that word.

Richards had carved out a role for himself on the fringes of Crystal Palace, certainly not a player Roy Hodgson was afraid of turning to, but there was a settled back four and a manager who was set in his (broadly effective) ways. It looked like the 24-year-old, considered one of the brightest of the bright young things that Gregg Berhalter is building around, was going to be heading into the summer a little undercooked -- a little unsure as to where his best spot for the long term might be, both on and off the pitch.

As Richards himself acknowledged last month, his eye was wondering, doubtless recalling the success he had had when trading Bayern Munich for a temporary spell at Hoffenheim. He was not short of suitors. "This time last year, a lot of Bundesliga and Ligue 1 teams came for Chris," his agent Alan Redmond tells CBS Sports. "He had a big decision to make. Stay and fight -- because he didn't play a lot in his first season -- or go on a loan or permanent."

Speaking while at the USMNT training camp earlier this month, Richards himself acknowledged the struggles that had come looking on from afar at an extremely settled Palace defense. 

"When you're not playing, it's easy to look outside, look for loans, look for others in your position who aren't playing," he said. "It's an easy way to get down on yourself. 

"But then I kept showing up every day, just kept going, just kept giving a 100%. Eventually, the opportunity fell my way. One thing I learned is patience and persistence go a long way." 

Richards seizes his Crystal Palace chance

Injuries afforded him partial opportunities -- when Cheick Doucoure's season was ended through a snapped Achilles in November, Hodgson turned to his U.S. international to plug a gap at the base of midfield -- but it was not until a change in the dugout that Richards really got a chance to shine. Oliver Glasner's appointment set Palace on an invigorating new trajectory, one whose final destination (for this season at least) was 19 points from a possible 21 in their final seven Premier League games, 21 goals to boot. Few enjoyed the ride quite as much as Richards.

"Glasner just completely changed us," Richards said. "We went from being kind of a sit-back-and-absorb-pressure type of team to being a team on the front foot, a team that goes out and is aggressive. I think it completely changed the course of our season."

Richards wouldn't be the only individual associated with Palace who felt the stars align when Glasner took over. A new back three system offered security of selection for the youngster, all the more so given that Marc Guehi suffered an injury in early February that sidelined him for most of the remainder of the season. The great challenge for Richards had always seemed to be that no matter what he did in training, his natural center back spot was filled by two of the best outside the Premier League's big six, Guehi and Joachim Andersen.

In the spring, the stars were aligning. Glasner wanted a center back who could step out of the defensive line and add presence to midfield. Richards had experience in just those spots from the final days of Hodgson. A higher line requires mobile center backs. There are few fleeter of foot in the Premier League than Richards. The new manager, formerly of Eintracht Frankfurt, was looking to add a Germanic verticality to Palace's play. Richards' time in the Bundesliga meant that Glasner was well aware of his qualities.

"Glasner knows Chris very well as a player from his time in Germany," Redmond said. "There was no time lost with the coach trying to understand the player. He already knew his attributes and how to get the best out of him.

"Glasner is a very intelligent man and, like a lot of great coaches, the clarity of his vision and the specifics of how he works with each player, make the job easier for players. The players have a lot work to do but they understand the work very clearly."

Richards connects with the Palace fans

Richards understood the assignment. His reward was a run of 10 full matches at center back; had it not been for a knee injury that sidelined him for three games, he would surely have been an ever-present under Glasner. Under new management, no one had a higher duel success rate while he averaged more than twice as many passes into the attacking third from his role on the left of the back three as he had before the change in the dugout.

Few around SE25 would begrudge him this extended run. The youngster has made a home for himself 4,000 miles away from Birmingham, Alabama. Richards relishes the connection between fanbase and players at Palace, one abundantly clear to anyone who has ever seen a game at Selhurst Park. His connection to the local area earned him the Community Champion award from the player's union the PFA. He is a regular at Palace for Life events and visited a local school for a Black History Month event.

What matters though is on the pitch. 

"To be honest, he's never really let us down," says Dan Cook, Palace fan and blogger with HLTCO. "He's incredibly quick, he reads the game well and the way that we play under Glasner, there is always the impetus of one of the center backs to go forward and join the midfield. Chris has shown himself to be someone who can do that quite well. He is someone who has all the physical attributes to work well in the Premier League and he has come to the forefront of our game."

Those physical qualities have always shone through for Richards. Perhaps the defining moment of his first season in London came when Manchester United, then a side rich in form with both Antony and Marcus Rashford looking like dangerous prospects in the frontline, rocked up at Selhurst to face a USMNT full Premier League debutant. Four tackles, four clearances and two interceptions, Palace, managed by Patrick Vieira at the time, had a well-earned 1-1 draw with a side then in the midst of a title race.

That game was, Redmond says, "the driver for Chris staying." He adds: "Rashford and Antony got nothing out of him in that game and he outpaced both. So the knowledge that he could do it in the Premier League was the foundation of his decision to stay."

Richards' game was built in Germany

Anyone who worked with or coached him in his youth speak of a sporting all-rounder who in another life could have been zipping up the court as a floor general. His early years in Germany proved that even at a young age he had the gifts needed to compete with seasoned professionals, most notably in 2019-20 when he played the second-most minutes for a Bayern Munich II side that were shock champions of the third tier. The head coach of that side, Sebastian Hoeness, would take Richards with him on loan when he took charge of Hoffenheim, cut price loan demands from his parent club making the American a punt worth taking.

"The physical presence stood out straight away," said Lukas Dombrowski, who covers Hoffenheim for German newspaper BILD. "Even in his younger years, you could see someone with the perfect shape to be a defender in football.

"I don't think everyone was that convinced that he would have the level for Bundesliga. There were ups and downs, but the summer after, it was clear that the club wanted to keep him and Bayern wanted to sell him for €10 million. Hoffenheim were reluctant to pay this, so in the end, it was another loan. To see how good he is now, €10 million would have been a great price for them."

Hoeness would leave the following season, Hoffenheim's form falling apart at a time when (perhaps coincidentally) Richards was sidelined through injury. That opened the door to Palace and a spell in south London, whose best days seem to be ahead of it. With Guehi's long-term future in doubt and new signing Chadi Riad perhaps one for the future at 20 years of age, it seems that the USMNT star's status as an important cog in the XI isn't changing any time soon.

"There is every chance that with the back five that we operate with, Richards will be a guaranteed starter next season," says Cook. "I think he's very much in Oliver Glasner's plans and that should stand him in good stead as part of the Copa America."

Heading into his first cross-continent international tournament -- a leg injury ruled him out of the World Cup -- Richards looks to have carved out the same starter role for himself on the international stage. Further fitness issues and that limited game time had thrust him into a fight with Cameron Carter-Vickers for the right to partner Tim Ream. The pre-Copa friendlies would suggest that is a battle he has won, indeed it might now be the case that the rest of the squad are battling to join him in the XI.

Staying put at Palace, then, has proven to be the shrewdest of moves.