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Shorthanded Spirit falls behind early and loses at Gotham FC

Ashley Hatch (33) had one of the few chances for the Spirit on Saturday in a loss at NY/NJ Gotham FC. (Scott Taetsch/For The Washington Post)

The Washington Spirit has so often excelled when faced with adversity over the past 12 months. But on Saturday night in Harrison, N.J., Gotham FC put the Spirit in an early hole, and with nearly a dozen players missing from the defending NWSL champions because of injuries or covid-19 protocols, there was no rally in a 1-0 loss.

The Spirit, which entered with four straight draws, was on the back foot from the start, largely thanks to Gotham standout Midge Purce, a former All-Met from Good Counsel. Purce, who grew up in Silver Spring, had one shot blocked, fired one shot wide and had one shot saved by Washington goalie Aubrey Kingsbury — all in the first six minutes.

Purce remained a threat, making a few more dangerous runs and launching another shot over the bar. Finally, in the 21st minute, she scored the game’s only goal with a sliding finish of a pass from Ifeoma Onumonu, who threaded the assist past Kingsbury. A relieved Purce grinned and said to Onumonu, “Thank you!”

“We were not in the right spaces at the get-go,” Washington midfielder Anna Heilferty said. “Just matching our energy, we want to come out stronger. We don’t want to let in early goals.”

That was especially the case given how shorthanded the Spirit was — Trinity Rodman and Aubrey Harding (covid-19 protocols) were late scratches on a list that already included Kelley O’Hara (hamstring), Tara McKeown (foot) and Dorian Bailey (cheekbone).

“Frankly, we’re playing people who are exhausted,” Spirit Coach Kris Ward said. “There’s no other way to say it. They’re exhausted. You come in, you’ve played three games in a week, the other team’s played one game in a week, what are you supposed to do?”

Adding to the Spirit’s issues, Ashley Sanchez took a kick to the leg in the 13th minute and needed a visit from the trainer. She went to the sideline for a moment and then kept playing until halftime, when Taylor Aylmer replaced her.

The Spirit went without a shot until the 34th minute and without a corner until the 41st. Just before halftime, forward Ashley Hatch broke free for a rare opportunity, a clear shot on goal. But Gotham goalie Michelle Betos deflected it wide.

Otherwise, Washington had few chances, finishing with two shots on goal. Purce almost scored again, shooting just wide from the right flank in the 89th minute, and then the Spirit went without a shot for seven-plus minutes of stoppage time.

“It’s no surprise we’re fatigued, but I think ultimately we have to shift the narrative [from] being one of a victim mind-set to a victor mind-set,” Kingsbury said. "… You saw during the second half we did just fine. We had the solutions. We didn’t look that tired at all.”

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After standout rookie season, Washington signed Trinity Rodman to four-year, $1.1 million deal.

The Post spoke to eight women who work or have worked for the Spirit, as well as three current and former players, who said they had been subjected to a workplace culture that was toxic for women and, many said, for women of color.

Kris Ward, who as interim coach guided the Washington Spirit through turbulent times and to the National Women’s Soccer League championship, was given the permanent job.

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