Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke on leading a 'rebirth of the franchise'

Richie Burke  is from Liverpool and once coached in Scotland with Livingston FC. But his family and heart are in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Over the winter, he joined the large contingent of English coaches in the NWSL, taking over as head coach of the Washington Spirit.

The Spirit followed up on a nice run of playoff appearances, coming within a few seconds of the NWSL title in 2016, with finishes in or near the league's cellar. But while this year's Spirit team is young, as in its 2013 debut, Burke is optimistic about his new team -- and a little more pessimistic about the Premier League trophy going to his childhood home.

SOCCER AMERICA: Would you have ever imagined at any point in the last 20 years that you would stand here now as coach of a professional women's team?

RICHIE BURKE: It wasn't a specific plan, but being involved in professional football, yeah. I've said previously, football is football. I don't really differentiate between genders. The game is 11v11, the ball's the same size, the dimensions are the same. So 20 years ago, when I was finishing as a pro (player), I always envisioned I would be in the game at some stage coaching.

People who played with me in professional football would've probably described me as a leader on the field and an organizer on the field. Some on the field used to refer to me as "The General" because I used to organize an awful lot.

So yeah, 20 years ago, I would've said definitely, I'll be in a professional football situation.

SA: The women's soccer community being -- I don't want to say "insular," but perhaps protective of its own identity -- as it is, some people may have been a little bit skeptical when someone who had not already been an assistant or a head coach with a professional women's team elsewhere came in. How would you address that, and what sort of skills do you bring in particular to the women's game?

BURKE: I'm a coach. I coach teams, I coach players, I coach people who try to get better. I think my education in football has been quite diverse. When you say it's an insular group of supporters, I hope it expands. I hope that we get more people in the stadium, and I hope who support us can continue to do so in a very positive way.

Our new ownership [Steve Baldwin] -- and the previous owner, Bill Lynch -- we've looked at this as a rebirth of the franchise and trying to redirect. I can only say that we're going to work as hard as we possibly can to make our players enjoy the experience and to make the players feel like they're appreciated, they're supported, they're respected, and they're elevated.

We met with U.S. Soccer yesterday to talk about some of our players within our current squad. We're pretty young. We've got six, maybe seven players -- including Mal [Pugh], Rose [Lavelle] and Andi Sullivan -- who could potentially be in the next World Cup cycle. So it's an exciting time for the Washington Spirit. There's no need for us to get concerned. I think people should be anticipating a good year, because I am.

SA: It is a fairly young group of players at this point, and that may worry some Spirit fans a little bit because they remember 2013, when there were players here who were on the [U.S.] U-23 team, there were players who had dominated in the ACC, but their youth did show up on the field and in the results. What do you think is different about this group?

BURKE: [N.C. Courage coach] Paul Riley is a really good friend. Paul Riley drafted very well in 2015, and as a result, his team won the 2018 championship.

Our theme is going to be in particular that we're going to try to play football. We might get bullied a little bit because of our youth. We might get banged around a little bit -- in professional football, across both genders, rookies and newcomers get a little bit of rougher treatment. So hopefully our players will mature very quickly in the hot cauldron of this league.

Even Andi Sullivan last season -- she took some time to adjust to this league because it's physical and a little bit different than college. So yeah, there'll be an adjustment made. Our job -- my staff and our football club -- will be to try to help them.

Richie Burke with Washington Spirit 2019 draft picks Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady and Jordan DiBiasi (left to right). (NWSL Photo)

SA: You mentioned Paul Riley. Are there other people who've been in the women's game whose council you sought or people that you've talked with over the years?

BURKE: Plenty of people. I'm very good friends with a lot of college coaches. I was involved way back when, before I got involved with D.C. United, with a Bethesda team that had [WUSA and Washington Freedom founder] John Hendricks' daughter on it. That was a team that ended up getting recruited all over the place, and those college coaches have remained good friends and remained in contact. A couple of them visited when I was managing in Scotland to try to get a feel for a professional training ground, and that was great to see. They've remained friends, and in the draft process, I reached out to quite a number of people to get information on players where I was lacking.

I speak to [former Spirit coach and current Portland coach] Mark Parsons on a regular basis. Paul Riley coming from Liverpool -- he's from the posh part of Liverpool, I'm from a little bit of a rougher part -- he's a good friend, and he's been very, very good. We had a great conversation yesterday about a player that we both had relative interest in.

I met [new Orlando coach] Marc Skinner for the first time yesterday. He flew in from England, he seems like another English guy who's going to be good. And of course, Laura Harvey's brilliant. Laura's fantastic, just top-drawer.

SA: You've also got plenty of experience in this area as a youth coach. The Spirit have had a lot of youth programs -- Development Academy and below that -- is that something that you want to be involved with, and what direction do you see the Spirit going with that?

BURKE: They've just announced recently that they're going to continue with the Development Academy. Larry Best has taken the reins with that one. A good friend who's been an assistant coach with me and worked with me at D.C. United, Tom Torres, I think is fantastic in that area. So I've left a lot of that to them because I'm not driving that. My emphasis and my focus is on the first team. I think the optics for us will be looking from the top down -- getting that first team right, and hopefully that will raise the standards across the board.

So for me the emphasis is very much: Get the right people in place. I was strongly driven to get the right support staff in place for me, because it's not just a one-person job. It's a big rebuild for us and a big redirection. That was important for me.

So I have to be honest, to a fault, to say that my focus has not really been on the youth side. It is a minefield in this area because there's a lot of different pieces. My job is very myopic right now -- look at the first team and try to get that right.

SA: You've got experience in Scotland. What do you see happening in the women's game there?

BURKE: It's not just in Scotland. More recently in the Argentine league, they've mandated that every single one in their first division gets a women's team. It's about time.

The parity in the UK is not where it should be just yet. Not everybody in those teams is full time, not all those teams have made a total commitment financially and organizationally for the women yet, but it's on the way.

In Scotland, the women's national team has qualified for the World Cup. The men haven't done that for an awful long time! So that's created a huge groundswell of support because they're very passionate, prideful people in Scotland. They're going to get right behind that national team, which is great for the game. It's great for the women in the UK.

Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton -- they've all committed to have strong women's programs. And they're doing great. I think the fan base is starting to grow a little bit. They're still a little way off. But in Europe, the community teams -- in Scandinavia and Germany, they're great. I think a little bit more financial commitment for the women is really what's needed. And if FIFA can at least get some balance in that, I think the product is going to be great.

The World Cup is going to be well-watched. It's going to be an exciting time. A lot of people in this country are going to watch it. A lot of Europeans are going to watch it -- it's a European World Cup this year. So it's really grown, and it's great. It's nice to be in this situation where it really is a groundswell of support and energy and support for the players.

SA: So the last question, I simply have to ask you -- can Liverpool pull it off this year?

BURKE: You know, I'm praying for a double -- the Washington Spirit NWSL champions and Liverpool Premier League champions. I've got to be very honest -- I had a conversation with Paul Riley, who's a big Red as well. He called me a philistine because I think Manchester City are going to win it again. As much as it pains me to say it, I think they're too deep and too strong.

20 comments about "Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke on leading a 'rebirth of the franchise'".
  1. frank schoon, February 8, 2019 at 9:18 a.m.

    "the large contingent of English coaches in the NWSL".  Why???? I would rather  have read a large contingent of Brazilian coaches in the NWSL. The last thing I want to see are English coaches,they have nothing to offer to the game. They have done enough damage to our player development in the US in the past 50years.
    Good Luck ,women soccer.....

  2. Michael Saunders replied, February 8, 2019 at 10:11 a.m.

    Hey Frank:   

    Well understood your concern regarding "English" coaches and its impact on player development, but generalization never should be applied.  Certainly, Riley's success should not be understated despite his background.   Indeed, there are other "development" issues that contributed to what we have seen over the past 50 years, particularly as we judge where we are in the men's game.  The US women's game also needs to undergo change  as the rest of the world, particulalrly UEFA,  have awakened to its potential.   To respond to that trend, inculcating and combining different approaches to improve our game must be made.   

  3. frank schoon replied, February 8, 2019 at 11:05 a.m.

    Michael, As far as player development goes, and we're talking about the men's game in the past 50 years. Can you imagine if it were Argentinian,Brazilian, in other words South American, Dutch and Yugoslavian were the main influence in our soccer instead of German and English. Look at rest of the world where soccer is big, there are no English coaches, just like EPL has so few of their own English coaches...The English DNA in soccer has never inspired new ideas in soccer, other than what they did 70-80 years ago.
    As far as Riley's success goes is meaningless to me, and neither am I impressed with Anson Dorrance style of soccer, regardless of his success. I would be impressed if Riley had brought about a new style of creative  play to the league, like what Tata has done with Atlanta for the MLS. 

  4. humble 1, February 8, 2019 at 12:04 p.m.

    Good article.  Please don't blame brits for USAs soccer issues, if we can't take responsibilty we'll never get anywhere.  Brits don't run USSF, MLS, NCAA or High School Athletic Associations.  Those are the organizations that can do better.  My boy who's first language is Spanish has a very fine English coach/trainer.  The biggest challenge for South American coaches is the language.  Gotta learn English to teach Americans soccer; this the English have in the bag!  From my persective I see a new wave of bi-lingual players and coaches coming through that should smash this barrier in the next generation and maybe we see more 'Americas' style soccer in America...slowly.  This trend needs to carry to referees as well or it will be full stop.  The Americas game at the youth level is a much more physical hard hitting style of play that parents and refs don't take well to here.         

  5. frank schoon replied, February 8, 2019 at 12:55 p.m.

    Humble 1, yes I do blame Brits for they and Germans basically ran soccer for the past 50years here. Your statement ' Brits don't run USSF, MLS, NCAA or High School Athletic Associations" tells me how little you understand the influence they have had and continue.I don't know how old you are but anyone who has been involved in soccer since the 60's like me,  can understand this fact. 
     Bilingual as the addition to improved coaching?...Yeah, I wish that was the problem...Soccer began basically in the white middle class community who had the money to pay the English coaches. Look at the product they produced in the past 50years here even with a common language. It has nothing to do with language but demonstrating skills and technique and how you should do it. THe Brits are not and have never been known for skill and intelligence in their game and likewise not known for youth development world wide. THere is a reason why so many predominantly foreing players and foreign coaches in the EPL...that  should say enough. 

  6. Michael Saunders replied, February 9, 2019 at 11:26 a.m.

    Hey Frank ... humble1 reflects my train of thought.  Placing the onus  on Brit coaches is just too easy.   The responsibility lies with the overseeing organizations.   Moreover, his point about developing a hybrid or American style makes sense.  No matter.  It must start at the youth level.  Certainly familiarity with the ball as championed by Byer's approach, and/or playing futsal will cause that to happen. Most important is creating an inviting affordable program for all income levels will speed up that development. 

    One final note:  Riley's role at the professional level is to make do with what is available to him. To that end, he needs to succeed at the professional level.  Not suggesting he should avoid introducing a more technical or creative style of play.   Personnel availability is a factor as are the concomitant financial capabiliies that must be taken into account.   Bottom line:  His job is to win.   Reaching the Championship final three years running, winning 2, speaks volumes.


  7. Michael Saunders, February 9, 2019 at 11:45 a.m.

    Hey Frank:  I lived that growth far more than you realize, literally growing up on the pitch starting in the 50s.   Placing a stake in the ground and allocating singular "blame" primarily to Brit or German coaches lacks historical context or knowledge of the decision making that created that structure.   

  8. frank schoon replied, February 9, 2019 at 1:22 p.m.

    Micheal, the whole soccer situation in America has  been carried out and structured by European influence- training and coaching...The introduction with the coaching Licensing system was introduced by Ditmar Cramer , a german. The USSF coaching Academy has always been run and controlled  by American college coaches, who favored European style of training and coaching and were biased against the Latin style(technical) game.  The NASL, NPSL and other leagues were up  mostly by European players and teams coming over. I remember in the 60's whole teams from Scotland and England  would play in the NPSL. FC Dalles with Lamar Hunt brought in English and other European players, one of them being a child hood friend who lived across the street from me. The major influence has been of mainly 2 countries , Germany and England. This is why today our way of playing fits the German/English of play and noticeably our youth players tend to go to Germany or England for they reflect better that style of play.
    I remember how  parents eyes would pop out and go nuts whenever hearing a coach with an English accent on the field, for subconsiously tied English accent with knowing how to play good soccer. AS a result soccer became a beachhead for English coaches to come here and earn their keep,  for they couldn't go anywhere else. And certainly who was to criticize their ways.
    The American parents who ran the soccer association  unfortunately weren't educated enough to know any better would hire the English coaches/trainers for there were tons of them around. Therefore you can't blame these organizations for not knowing any better.
    Now, ofcourse there exceptions and everything I say is not written in stone for there are certain individuals of English backround that could muster teaching kids soccer, and do a decent job at coaching.
    Over the years our ways of playing is molded to German/English style and structure which is difficult to change. 

  9. frank schoon replied, February 9, 2019 at 1:35 p.m.

    Michael , Knowing how little influence the British have in soccer, the lack of good English coaches/players you don't find  them in other good soccer playing countries, Germany, Holland ,France, Spain,etc because they are not respected. There is even a dearth of English coaches in their own country and certainly you would have to look under a rock to find one in the EPL which is filled with foreign coaches and players to make the league look decent. With this backround in mind , lets say it wasn't about soccer but about cars, would you rather import  English cars or cars from countries that had a much ,much better reputation.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, February 9, 2019 at 2:30 p.m.

    Michael, it is true that generalizations always include individuals that are exceptions. On the other hand, humble1 misses the target saying that Brits were not running soccer organizations. It isn't the officers and boards that do the training. I would mention names of influential Brits, but that would be unfair because I remember the names of people that impress me favorably.

    Even now I think the US conventional thinking on tactics is promoting bad tactics. I saw a USSF  coaching education diagram a couple of years back that depicted a 235 attacking shape and called it innovative. I am still laughing at USSF over its idea of innovative. To be fair, I thought the technical staff at USYSA was outstanding in the past and was upset when USSF basically pushed them aside to take charge of youth coaching doctrine. The old USYSA coaching materials are still my in references. 

    In my opinion how to develop players hasn't changed in 30 years and was never a secret, although lots of coaches didn't follow the best practices. Same with good play. Good tactics are not a secret, but for some reason many coaches and organizations in the US have been more interested in training teams and winning youth matches than developing players.

    There are some good training opportunities available and always has been, but availability is still very limited.

  11. frank schoon replied, February 9, 2019 at 3:07 p.m.

     Michael,Bob made Good a point <" It isn't the officers and boards that do the training."> These people just hire coaches to do the training. As usual Bob has a knack of explaining things in one sentence that takes me 3 to do. You can't blame the American soccer organizations for they don't know any better as to the finer details of what coach is best to hire. For example, when dealing with youth you're dealing here mostly with technical development, skills and the application hereof.
    Taking it a step further what countries are known for technique skills and display?
    Well, certainly it isn't England ,so why would you deal with coaches from England instead of a country like Brazil or some other country that produces skillful player  and whose is very technical...again not British. But these organizations don't think that way unless I were running it. 
    Also the soccer organizations hire licensed coaches from the USSF coaching school of which the academy has a European, English ,German slant; Although ,today, the Dutch beginning to get more influence which is not much different from the German school.
    Now if my kids were up to a certain age level aroung 15 and needed some specific,good training in heading the ball, I would hire an English's that simple; but I would never allow an English trainer to run the technical side  of the game for my kids...

  12. Michael Saunders, February 9, 2019 at 4:01 p.m.

    Frank:    The rationale to your logic defines success based on professional teams’ respective results downstream versus the need to formulate a development plan with goals and objectives to have our youth become competitive for the future at the time when there was no structure in place.  Thus, the birth of a coaching “license” system.    Bottom line:  One had to start somewhere because the structure for player development was loose knit at best.

    Soccer also had to address a personnel market that was not only new to the game; but was also competing against established well known team American sports  from the same athletic pool.  Over the years that program evolved with a reliance on English speaking coaches. Not surprising it was easier for them to transmit knowledge simply based on language. Unfortunately, as happened in all sports in this country, “pay to play” became the modus operandi to develop players.  In hindsight it may be easy to identify the culprit(s) for what occurred, but no one could predict that outcome when the original development plan was established.   It went off track;for events it could not control.  For example, had the original NASL sustained itself, would the quality of play have been different 25 years later?    Who knows as it would be conjecture one way or the other.   

    Where I concur with your criticism is that the various organizations did not address the critical issues regarding player development quick enough to foster more technical play, or if you will, more creative modern play.   


  13. frank schoon replied, February 9, 2019 at 5:07 p.m.

    Michael, It is better to have no structure as far as youth development. I grew up without structure and kids of my generational were much better prepared and skilled than generation. Read Cruyfs auto/biography who lived a few tram stops from where I learned to play. He learned his game like I did playing, most of my hours ,  pickup soccer, and then spend a few hours a week at Ajax ,training and playing. Kids were more skillfull and innovative and thought about the game more than todays kids ,who, from day one have a coach/licensed instructor ,following a pedantic , programmed training sessions, which as result reduced "individuality and spontaneity'. In Holland the greatest technicians and players grew up playing without licensed coaches. As a matter the great dutch team of Ajax of the 70's and the Dutch WC'74 " Total Soccer" team that Cruyff considers the best soccer ever played, none of these players ever grew up with licensed instructors, pay for play and all that garbage but learned through playing.
    You should read some of the comments about the French stars on how they learned the game,PICKUP soccer, going out and hone your skills playing against better players, without coaches around. 
    When we are dealing with youth development we are dealing with skill development ,FIRST, an aspect which is all about "doing" and you don't need a coach or structure or planning for that, as is shown by the great technicians before there licensed coaches. Today ,young kids from 3rd countries, learn develop their skills and game insights without structure,  money, shoes,  expensive soccer camps, pay for play coaches and somehow  have much better skills than our kids with all their post

  14. frank schoon, February 9, 2019 at 5:17 p.m.

    Michael , you mentioned " One had to start somewhere because the structure for player development was loose knit at best." Ok, but the point here is that we relied upon German-English way of coaching and training instead of following a more technical approach, a la South American; and yes we do have hispanic coaches that can also speak English it that's needed. 
    As you state we relied more upon English speaking coaches and thus their way of playing which was detrimental to our player development in the long run. It didn't have to be that way for if we had structured our English speaking coaches at the USSF coaching academy to follow a more South American style of play...

  15. Michael Saunders replied, February 9, 2019 at 6:09 p.m.

    Frank: Your conclusions are based on hindsight which is 100%. Indeed, your final paragraph confirms that very fact when you say:  "It didn't have to be that way for IF we had structured our English speaking coaches at the USSF coaching academy to follow a more South American style of play."          

    Bottom line a system needed to be put in place as there were too many disparate orgnaizations doing their own thing.   Other countries had programs but they were established soccer centric countries.   Also, we are talking about the sixties.  Most USSF leagues and teams were ethnically oriented in many cities:  Greek Americans, Phildelphia Ukranians, German-American League, etc. .... mostly European not South American.  In NY, there was a Spanish Latin American  League that operated independently from the Federation.       So arguing the pros or cons of why a certain soccer culture dominated the development program is moot.  It became a de facto reality based on the investment by those coaches or team of coaches that saw an opportunity to do so.  Unfortunately, the dynamics gravitated to the suberbs and "pay for play". 




  16. Bob Ashpole replied, February 9, 2019 at 9:33 p.m.

    Michael, my belief is that player development actually moved backwards with the youth soccer boom and immergence of youth soccer as a billion dollar industry.

    Think that we have to have a regimented uniform system driven top down in a national organization and program is a management fallacy common to many industries.

  17. frank schoon, February 9, 2019 at 8:48 p.m.

    Michael , my conclusion is not on hindsight. My feelings about English soccer has always been there from day one. Knowing what English soccer is like ,the lack skills ,technique, as I stated before , you don’t want to employ English coaches for that reason to develop players. This has nothing to do with different ethnic leagues. Developing  good skills transcend culture , or ethnic considerations, as seen by third world  countries from all over the world kids who learn without structure and end up with good skills

  18. Michael Saunders, February 10, 2019 at 10:45 a.m.

    Frank:   It is incredulous that you based your decision in the late sixties through the early seventies when the English WC Team and many of its clubs were at their apex.   Also, to ignore the position you put forth on ethnic leagues fails to recognize what was happening in transitioning the game into an acceptable American sport.   

    A more credible argument is put forth by Bob Ashpole, not necessarily for the reasons he states; but by dint of the fact that there was a lack of control by the governing body to ensure that the program was working to the benefit of youth development.   The probem was first recognized in 1981, twelve years after the coaching licensing program was established ;  but it focused on the coaches rather than the status of youth development.    



  19. frank schoon replied, February 10, 2019 at 11:52 a.m.

    Michael , you are going way beyond what this discussion was originally about. As I recall  the point of our discussion  was that I would not employ the use of English coaches and gave many reasons and's that simple.  And I also stated that there are perhaps certain exceptions since nothing is written in stone. In sum I would not use English coaches because they have grownup  with the English game which is not respected  world-wide for their skills, finesse and thinking.
     Without all the foreign players and coaches the English soccer league would be a joke, for ironically they invented the game . On their top teams you have to look under a rock to find even an English players..This basically sums up my feelings about English soccer. Now if you diagree with this assertion , fine, that's your problem, but those are the facts.
    That you bring up a point about<"It is incredulous that you based your decision in the late sixties through the early seventies when the English WC Team and many of its clubs were at their apex. "> adds nothing  whatsoever  to  the discussion of the original point I was making about English soccer other than for you perhaps attempting to make an argument for argument sake. But I will answer you ,anyway.  Next Post.

  20. frank schoon, February 10, 2019 at 12:29 p.m.

    English soccer began going downhill since the 50's(probably earlier) after they played Hungary, for Hungary showed them how to actually play the game. Teams of other countries began dominating like Real Madrid , Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, and the exceptions, Manchester Utd. and England winning WC'66 , which was a total fluke, but like in tournaments the best team doesn't necessarily win, as shown  in '74, '82. Here is another example of a country going downhill in the past decade which was Holland but still ended up in 3rd place in the WC'74. So yes the Dutch did well but their overal soccer was in decline even before the WC'14.
     English soccer has not kept up with modern times. Being a teenager in the 50's, and 60's ,I realized English soccer was not the way to go.And during those years and later ,I  read many books , biographies and autobiographies, of foreign player's opinions, that happened to play in England which further bolstered my opionion on the English game of soccer. Back in the early to late 80's ,I wrote a soccer column in which I expressed much  my disdain for  English soccer and that we shouldn't rely on English coaches/trainers coming over here to train our youth.
     In sum your wrong to think that I base my decisions on English soccer just on the 60's and 70's. No, I based it on the 50's,60's, 70's,80's, 90's,2000's and ond world wide, just like the lack of good English coaches  in foreing countries other than in the US. I also base it on their simplistic tactical play, their lack of discipline, their myopic vision along with chauvenistic attitude of British that their soccer was the best. It was Wenger of Arsenal that finally introduced a diet for his players in the late 90's. Even English Physiotherapy for soccer players at one time way behind the times.
    Your statement,"The problem was first recognized in 1981, twelve years after the coaching licensing program was established  but it focused on the coaches rather than the status of youth development.'>
    You mean it took 12 years to recognize the problem, something that I recognized already in the early 70's. The problem is that they may have recognized it but their solution is still wrong., The USSF is like a ship for in order to change course it takes a long time turn around and  even hope their solution is correct, which is another matter.

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