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Richie Burke steps down as Washington Spirit coach, appointed to front office pending an investigation

Richie Burke had an 18-15-13 record in charge of the Washington Spirit. (Scott Taetsch for The Washington Post)

Richie Burke on Tuesday stepped down as the Washington Spirit’s head coach and was reassigned to the National Women’s Soccer League team’s front office. The organization cited “health concerns” for the move.

Larry Best, the Spirit’s president of sporting operations, said in a statement that Burke told him Monday of the health issues.

“We mutually agreed that it was in the best interests of him and of the club for him to step down as our coach,” Best said. “Once Richie’s health improves, he will join the sporting operations staff.”

One day after the move was announced, The Washington Post published a story detailing allegations by former players that Burke verbally and emotionally abused them. Steve Baldwin, the Spirit’s managing partner, subsequently released a statement saying the club has suspended Burke and is investigating the claims.

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“We take these allegations very seriously and are undertaking an immediate investigation," Baldwin said. "Burke has been suspended pending the investigation and is prohibited from contacting players and staff and our facilities. We, as a team, will not tolerate any situation for our players and staff that is less than professional. Our athletes, and all of those who support them, deserve the absolute best.”

Burke did not reply to messages. Best and Baldwin were not available for interviews.

The team did not go into detail about Burke’s health condition in its statement Tuesday. A person close to him, who requested anonymity to speak on the matter, said that Burke has been dealing with stress issues this season but was doing fine.

The Spirit said it has begun searching for a replacement. Kris Ward, who oversees tactical analysis and player performance development, and goalkeepers coach Paul Crichton will lead the team into Friday’s match in Houston.

Burke was midway through his third season and had an 18-15-13 overall record. Washington (5-5-3 this year) has lost three of its past four matches and sits seventh in the 10-team league, one point out of a playoff spot.

The English-born Burke, a fixture in D.C. youth soccer circles and a former Scottish men’s club coach, took over a Spirit team that won a combined seven matches in 2017-18. At the time, the Spirit investigated claims that Burke had been abusive toward youth players.

Pivoting to a young core of players, led by U.S. national team star Rose Lavelle, Washington contended for a playoff berth in 2019.

Last year, with the regular season canceled because of the pandemic, the Spirit went a combined 4-3-3 in two tournaments. In between those competitions, the club traded Lavelle’s NWSL rights to OL Reign.

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Washington tried compensating for that move by acquiring U.S. World Cup defenders Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett and drafting rising star Trinity Rodman. Still, Washington failed to meet heightened expectations, and a 1-0 defeat to the first-place Portland Thorns on Saturday at Segra Field in Leesburg dropped its home record to 1-3-1.

Burke was the Spirit’s fourth full-time head coach since the league’s 2013 debut, following Mike Jorden, Mark Parsons and Jim Gabarra. None lasted more than three seasons.

Washington is the third NWSL team in six weeks to change coaches. OL Reign’s Farid Benstiti resigned, and the Orlando Pride replaced Marc Skinner, who accepted Manchester United’s offer.

This story has been updated to reflect Burke’s suspension.

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