The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington Spirit defends new coach against allegations of verbal abuse

Spirit Coach Richie Burke joins Stanford defender Tegan McGrady at the NWSL draft in Chicago last month. (Robin Alam/ISI Photos)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Washington Spirit on Monday issued a statement in support of new coach Richie Burke, whom parents of a youth player have accused of directing “abusive language and subversive behavior” toward their son when he played on Burke’s club team last year.

"We take these concerns very seriously and have taken great care to gather all available information,” the National Women’s Soccer League team said.

The statement came in response to a comment posted on the team’s Instagram account over the weekend by Kellie Herring, of Hillsboro, Va. The Spirit later deleted the comment while it said it looked into the matter.

In her comment, Herring referenced Burke’s “language, use of homophobic slurs and disturbing coaching behavior” while her son, Jagger, 16, played for Virginia FC, an elite club in Loudoun County.

In a telephone interview Monday, Herring said, “I wasn’t looking to battle the Washington Spirit; I just wanted them to know.”

The Spirit said “we have spent significant time with FC Virginia and members of their management team who were involved when this family raised its concerns last year. FC Virginia and Coach Burke have been transparent in providing information and answering our questions. What we have learned from FC Virginia and from Coach Burke is that at the time of the issue, FC Virginia investigated the matter and determined no action was necessary.”

The Spirit said FC Virginia polled the rest of the team’s parents “in an anonymous format that allowed for honesty without retribution and found that the other parents were universally happy with and supportive of Coach Burke.”

Reached by phone, Burke said he did not want to comment.

Herring said her son was so affected by Burke’s treatment he needed to undergo therapy and take medication. He quit travel soccer and will play for his high school team only.

She said she and her husband, Eric, were “most upset [about] abusive language and subversive behavior that he invokes for players who don’t perform for him. He is your best friend if you play well for him. He will treat you well. You will be a hero for him. He will be best friends with your family. He loves to love those players who perform for him.

"And when they don’t, it seems almost personal, the degree of how verbally abusive he will get. ‘You’re the [expletive] player out there, you were [expletive] today, why would you even come out on this field?’ Those things said to young children need to stop.”

They said they complained to FC Virginia officials, who instructed Burke and other coaches to undergo abuse-awareness training. A call to FC Virginia official Mike Berry was not immediately returned.

The Spirit hired Burke, 56, last month to oversee a team that won seven games over the past two seasons. Training camp is scheduled to open next week.

The Spirit fields several international-caliber players, including three in contention for roster spots on the U.S. national team for the Women’s World Cup this summer in France.

Burke, a native of Liverpool, England, has coached for more than 30 years, mostly with youth programs in the area. He worked for D.C. United as a first-team assistant and under-23 coach, and he also guided Scottish club Livingston.

Burke is well-known in local soccer circles for both his coaching ability and his intensity.

A former female player at National Cathedral School, where Burke coached for many years, wrote in an email, “I don’t know of anything that Richie did to us that was illegal, merely inappropriate.”

Another former pupil, Dan Driscoll, praised him, saying it was interesting to note, “not just how many rec leaguers he turned into college and pro players, but how many of his players are now coaches, many of us holding top U.S. Soccer Federation licenses.”

In investigating the allegations, the Spirit said, “as attention to this incident grew online, we were very pleased to receive support from numerous parents who have worked with Coach Burke throughout the years, including many from parents of this FC Virginia team. Those parents spoke of Coach Burke’s commitment to excellence and to fairness; to player development and character building; to strategy alongside sportsmanship.”

Jagger Herring first played for Burke at age 11 with Evergreen FC, a Leesburg club. Burke was the technical director, and his son, Ricky, coached Jagger. On Monday, the Herrings spoke of Ricky Burke in glowing terms.

When the elder Burke left Evergreen, Kellie Herring said Jagger chose to follow the coach to FC Virginia because of his affection for both Burkes.

“He chose FCV because he said, ‘Someday I will play for Richie, and I can’t wait.’ ”

Things began to turn last year, the Herrings said.

“We didn’t realize the degree of what was happening to him,” Kellie said of her son. “We know Richie’s inappropriate, we know he is saying these things, but the season is almost done, let’s power through. We told Jagger, ‘You’re going to have tough coaches throughout your life.’ "

Eric Herring said other parents raised concerns as well, and the situation worsened.

“We just had to let him quit,” Eric said. “He didn’t want to play club soccer anymore.”

Read more soccer coverage from The Post:

Washington Spirit is eyeing at least one match at Audi Field

NWSL loses A&E Networks as a major investor

D.C. United was quiet in the preseason. Too quiet?

‘An extraordinary scene’: Chelsea goalkeeper refuses to leave field as manager fumes

How more than 150 American soccer players abroad fared this weekend