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Amid turmoil, Washington Spirit routs Racing Louisville to move into NWSL playoff position

Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch, right, celebrates her opening goal Saturday with teammate Ashley Sanchez. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

After the reckoning within the NWSL postponed all scheduled games last weekend before an emotional midweek return Wednesday, the Washington Spirit’s match Saturday night fell a bit closer to routine — even if the upheaval inside the organization hung over Audi Field.

A sign reading “Sell The Team, Steve” was draped behind one goal, and another that read “BALDWIN OUT” hung at the other end, calling for managing partner Steve Baldwin to sell his stake in the team amid allegations of abuse within the franchise.

It’s unclear if change at the top is coming, but the on-field product was impressive as the Spirit delivered a crisp performance in a critical 3-0 win over Racing Louisville.

The win put Washington (8-7-6) in playoff position. Louisville fell to 4-12-5.

The cloud hanging over the league, however, is taking a toll on the players.

“It’s exhausting,” Spirit goalie Aubrey Bledsoe said. “Across the league, though, every player has committed that we’re going to do this work together. No one player or one team is going to shoulder the burden. So we’re staying in solidarity across the league. But ultimately we’re committed to making this league what it needs to be.

“I would love to get back to being a soccer player, first and foremost. It’s a round-the-clock job right now, but we’re not going to stop until we see some signs of change.”

Forward Ashley Hatch, who scored twice, spoke afterward about what it’s like explaining to new players about the team’s previous culture under fired coach Richie Burke.

“That’s a conversation we’re trying to change,” Hatch said. “We want there to be an NWSL where you don’t have to explain to rookies or young players to prepare for an abusive coach or toxic environment. So I think that’s why these conversations are so important.”

The Spirit spent most of the first half on the attack, breaking through before allowing Louisville a shot. In the eighth minute, from near midfield, Trinity Rodman sent a ball bouncing toward the box that Racing’s defense couldn’t handle. Hatch ran on to the ball and fired it past goalkeeper Michelle Betos.

Rodman, who entered Saturday tied for the team lead in assists, and Hatch, the Spirit’s leading scorer, connected again in the 80th minute from shorter range. With little urgency, Betos rolled a pass across the box to Sinclaire Miramontez. Rodman, who has developed a reputation as one of the team’s fastest players, tore into the box and on to the ball, tapping a pass around Betos that Hatch finished for a 3-0 lead.

The goal was Hatch’s ninth, moving her into a tie with OL Reign’s Bethany Balcer for the league lead. Andi Sullivan scored Washington’s second goal in the 52nd minute, after Kaleigh Riehl pushed Ashley Sanchez in the box.

The closest call on defense came when Louisville won a free kick in the 68th minute. Lauren Milliet slipped a shot through a gap in Washington’s wall, but Bledsoe made a diving save.

The Spirit won the possession battle with 57 percent of the ball, completed 80 percent of its passes and outshot Louisville 20-11.

When the game began, the Spirit sat one point behind the Orlando Pride for the sixth and final playoff spot, with the competition only stiffening in the season’s last three games. With a rout of the NWSL’s ninth-place team, Washington moved past the Pride, which lost, 3-2, to Gotham FC on Saturday. The Spirit also passed the Houston Dash and North Carolina Courage, though both of those teams have played one fewer game. They play each other Sunday night.

Washington now finishes the season with games against the Courage on Wednesday, OL Reign next Sunday and the Dash on Oct. 31. All three of those teams would be in the playoffs if the season ended this weekend. The Spirit has seven points in the past three games after consecutive forfeits against the Reign and Portland Thorns because of coronavirus protocol violations.

Meanwhile, the players continue to call for Baldwin to sell his share of the team to co-owner Y. Michele Kang.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think Steve is going to honor our demand or request,” Bledsoe said. “He says that he puts the players first, but I don’t know how he can do that when there’s a chance that we would be moving. That is not at all what this team wants. We want to stay here in this city. It’s a great city. They deserve a club.”

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