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As turmoil continues off the field, Spirit earns scoreless draw with Courage

Aubrey Bledsoe and the Spirit posted their first shutout since July 25 in their draw against the Courage on Sunday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

In the final three minutes of the Washington Spirit’s 0-0 draw against the North Carolina Courage on Sunday evening, larger issues within the organization were prominent.

A handful of club supporters among the 4,554 in attendance at Audi Field chanted “Sell the team,” a call for Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin to give up his ownership amid allegations of verbal and emotional abuse by Richie Burke, the former coach who was suspended Aug. 11.

On the field, the Spirit (6-5-5) finished without a win for the fourth time in five games. However, Spirit interim coach Kris Ward was pleased with his club’s performance against a team that hasn’t allowed a goal in its past four games. The Spirit outshot the Courage 21-12 and posted its first shutout since July 25.

“We talked at halftime, and we just said, ‘I know we’ve worked on defending a lot in the last couple of weeks, but we don’t want to forget that our brand hasn’t changed from being a team that wants to dictate the game, that wants to be the aggressor,’ ” Ward said. “Aside from a goal, I couldn’t have asked for more in the second half. It was just a fantastic effort for them. They came out, and they showed all of that ability, all of that belief, all of that swagger right away.”

When the Spirit and Courage (8-4-4) last met July 10 at Audi Field, Washington forward Ashley Hatch scored both of the game’s goals in the Spirit’s 2-0 win. Entering that match, the Courage was tied for first place in the NWSL and had won four consecutive games.

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The Courage was in a similar situation entering Sunday. North Carolina had won three straight and sat in second place. The Courage, the NWSL champion in 2018 and 2019, would remain in that spot regardless of Sunday’s results, but the Spirit had more at stake. The Spirit entered Sunday in fourth, but the teams from third to seventh place were separated by three points. While Washington picked up a point Sunday, the Orlando Pride jumped the Spirit with a 1-0 win over Gotham FC.

“Every game is a big game in this league,” midfielder Dorian Bailey said. “The Courage have had that reputation; they win all the time. It’s nice to beat the Courage. It’s a little bit of an East Coast rivalry for us. We’re always up for the challenge, and they always give us a good game.”

Washington rose in the standings with its 2-1 win over Orlando on Aug. 22, powered by forward Ashley Sanchez’s right-footed rocket from about 20 yards out in the 89th minute. It was the club’s first victory since July 25 and first since the club suspended Burke and opened an investigation Aug. 11 after The Washington Post reported allegations by former players of verbal and emotional abuse by Burke.

Spirit supporters hoisted a white sign at Audi Field on Sunday reading “Sell The Team, Steve,” referencing Baldwin. Douglas Reyes-Ceron, the co-founder of Spirit supporters’ group Rose Room Collective, said security asked him to put down the sign during the game. A Spirit spokesperson declined to comment on the incident. Baldwin hired Burke in December 2018, and the club defended Burke shortly after it hired him when a pair of former youth players alleged emotional abuse by Burke.

On the field, the Spirit received assistance Sunday when defenders Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett started for the first time since they left in June to play for the U.S. women’s national team at the Tokyo Olympics. Last week against Orlando, they made their first appearances since returning from Tokyo in the second half. Spirit midfielder Julia Roddar also substituted into Sunday’s game in the 60th minute for her first appearance since she won a silver medal with Sweden at the Olympics.

Sunday’s game also featured two of the league’s top scorers in Hatch (seven) and Courage forward Lynn Williams (six). But neither squad could finish its opportunities. While the Spirit defended well, Ward wants his squad to be more aggressive on offense.

“We’ve hit the post so often in games,” Ward said, “I don’t even remember if we hit the post in this game as well.”

The Spirit will face another challenge Saturday night when it visits the first-place Portland Thorns in Oregon. While controversy within the Spirit organization’s front office continues, Washington hopes to maintain its playoff spot as it enters the final two months of the season.

“I think we can still do what we did today: believe in ourselves and have a lot of precision in the team,” Roddar said. “If we can work on that and keep doing that, I think we can get a win in Portland.”

Molly Hensley-Clancy contributed to this report.

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