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Mallory Pugh, Margaret Purce spark Sky Blue FC’s 2-1 win over Washington Spirit in NWSL Fall Series opener

Purce scored the winning goal with an assist from Pugh, and helped orchestrate an anti-racism protest before the game.

Mallory Pugh, left, made her debut for Sky Blue FC against the Washington Spirit in a NWSL Fall Series game at Segra Field in Leesburg, Virginia on September 5, 2020.
Mallory Pugh, left, made her debut for Sky Blue FC against the Washington Spirit in a NWSL Fall Series game at Segra Field in Leesburg, Virginia on September 5, 2020.Read moreXavi Dussaq / Washington Spirit

Sky Blue FC won its NWSL Fall Series opener over the Washington Spirit 2-1 on Saturday in Leesburg, Va., with an opening goal from Ifeoma Onumonu and a late winner from Margaret Purce that was set up by U.S. star Mallory Pugh.

Onumonu got Sky Blue on the board in the 18th minute with a strong piece of high pressure, picking the ball off Washington’s Sam Staab after a lax buildup out of the back. It was Onumonu’s first goal for Sky Blue after a frustrating stretch in the summer Challenge Cup when she didn’t score in six games.

Glenside native Meghan McCool made her professional debut for the Spirit at the start of the second half, replacing fellow rookie Ashley Sanchez, and Pugh made her long-awaited Sky Blue debut in the 61st.

The Spirit equalized in the 89th minute with a Paige Nielsen penalty kick after Erica Skroski tripped Jesse Scarpa in the middle of the 18-yard box. And matters got worse when McCool slammed into Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan as she dove for the loose ball.

But there was still time for a winner, and the national TV audience watching on CBS got its money’s worth. Pugh hit the post on a breakaway in the 91st, then sprung Purce for the winner on Sky Blue’s next move down the field.

The through ball was a brilliant pass that beat three Washington players, and Purce timed her run through the Spirit’s back line perfectly. Her finish was sharp, too, a flick with the outside of her right foot to the far post.

“I was just excited to be out there and playing,” said Pugh, who missed the Challenge Cup with a hip injury. “Thank goodness Midge scored that. I was like, ‘Please score!’ "

» READ MORE: Tobin Heath, Christen Press sign with Manchester United; NWSL sets Fall Series schedule

Purce’s leadership on the day started well before the game. As a key member of the Black Players of the NWSL group, she helped organize the creation of pregame warmup shirts with the messages “EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” topped by a black fist raised in solidarity.

The CBS broadcast noted that the shirts were put together in just the last few days. Purce said Sky Blue general manager Alyse LaHue and Broomall native Natasha Cloud of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics helped with logistics.

“I was on the phone, like, begging Alyse for advice on how to put things together because she just knows how to do everything,” Purce said with a laugh. “I cannot say enough about Natasha Cloud. … She was so huge in helping us make our statements, so thank you to Natasha Cloud from all of us. I’m a huge fan.”

All players from both teams wore the shirts before the game.

“Black Lives Matter is not a political opinion,” said a joint statement from both teams’ players issued just before kickoff. “Black Lives Matter is a reflection of your value system and your regard for building a better society for the future. It is seen in your willingness to understand how oppressive systems have severely impacted human lives, your votes and much more.”

The statement continued: “Our statement is clear and its meaning obvious. It isn’t watered down to make people more comfortable with hiding behind false neutrality. There is no neutrality. You’re either with us or against us. Black Lives Matter.”

There was also a large “Black Lives Matter” banner on the stands that the camera faced.

Purce thanked LaHue and the rest of Sky Blue’s front office for supporting the players.

“Our club has been super supportive in all the initiatives that we’ve wanted to do,” Purce said. “Alyse is fantastic. … Going forward, we look forward to working with the league to do more influential and impactful statements — and actual work in the community that makes the difference.”

Sky Blue’s next game is Sept. 20 at the Chicago Red Stars. Its home contests are Oct. 3 vs. Washington and Oct. 10 vs. Chicago, both behind closed doors at Montclair State University.