Burke brings experience to Spirit
Veteran coach cares about results but not at the cost of developing his players
chicago — Richie Burke played professional soccer in England, Australia and the United States. He toiled one summer in the chaotic indoor version of the sport. He has coached high school and youth teams, academies and a Scottish club, boys and girls, players with grand ambition and kids wanting to just kick around for a bit.
In all cases, he says, the game is the same.
“The ball is round. The field is the same size. It’s 11 versus 11,” he said.
Well, except that time he wore a snarling warthog on his jersey for six-on-six games on a rink-sized surface inside USAir Arena in Landover.
“The principles of play are really what we live and die by as coaches,” the Liverpool native added. “Football is football. It’s the way you like the game to be played.”
Burke, 56, will apply his truths this year to something new for him: a women’s pro team, the Washington Spirit. He was hired last month and formally introduced last week before swinging two trades and making four firstround picks in the National Women’s Soccer League draft Thursday.
“Irrespective of the fact I am now working with girls, we are going to play the same way and adhere to those principles that I believe will make us very successful and a very attractive product to watch,” he pledged. “If we are going to lose, we are going to lose with style.”
Burke has lived in the Washington area for most of the past 35 years, with the only substantial pause coming in 2012-13 when he moved to Scotland for an assistant coaching job that morphed into the head position at second-division Livingston.
In his time in the District, Burke played for American University, the Washington Diplomats and the Washington Stars in the American Soccer League and the Washington Warthogs in the Continental Indoor Soccer League. He coached in D.C. United’s youth system, served as a first-team assistant under Ray Hudson in 2002-03 and oversaw the MLS club’s under-23 squad in multiple summers.
For years, Burke led the National Cathedral School girls’ program to prep excellence — a position he kept despite a longing to be involved with a pro outfit. He had promised his wife he would not seek bigger opportunities outside the area until their children had completed high school.
“It was a difficult period,” he said. “Not to undermine NCS in any way. It sounds very conceited and pigheaded to say it was like Einstein teaching fourth-grade math. We won everything. Why? Because we were being coached and worked at a higher level. It was a very frustrating period, but now I am glad I did it. It was for the family.”
Most recently, Burke worked for two area youth operations, Evergreen FC and FC Virginia.
He admits he did not know much about the Spirit until this past fall, when incoming executive Larry Best, someone Burke has known for many years, approached him about a vacancy created by Jim Gabarra’s dismissal in August.
“Once they reached out,” he said, “I started doing my homework.”
Burke will inherit a team that won twice last year and seven times in two seasons (48 matches). There is optimism, however.
Three of the top young U.S. national team players — Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan, all of whom were slowed by injuries in 2018 — are expected to return. Barring injury, Pugh and Lavelle are certain of making the World Cup squad and, consequently, missing some time with the Spirit.
The trio will be joined by several current or former U.S. under23 prospects, including four drafted in the first round Thursday.
With those skilled pieces, Burke believes he can instill a creative and stylish form of soccer.
“Some of these [NWSL] franchises have gone for some players who are aggressive and brutish and a little less inclined to play football because it’s a results-oriented business,” Burke said, lamenting defensive tactics that marred the game globally.
“We will be results-oriented, but we want to be aesthetically good, too. I am not interested in subscribing to a style of play that is all about wins at any cost because, from a player development standpoint, these young players need to play better football.”
The Spirit will open training camp March 4 and begin its seventh season April 13-14. The team will remain based at Maryland SoccerPlex but look to play perhaps two of its 12 home matches at Audi Field in the District.
From left, first-round draft picks Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady and Jordan DiBiasi pose with new Washington Spirit Coach Richie Burke.