By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON — Something clearly has been amiss for D.C. United early this season. The goals that came with such abundance last year have gone missing. The defensive discipline that earned the club so many results down the stretch has largely escaped as well. And that midfield rhythm is just lacking.
“We haven’t been good on the ball at all,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “We still need more dangerous possession, more threatening attacks. It’s too easy right now.”
That much was clear Saturday, as a haphazard United side saw their 19-game unbeaten streak at RFK Stadium end with a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew.
“It feels terrible, for one,” captain Dwayne De Rosario said. “Second of all, it was embarrassing.”
Pouncing on set pieces, the Crew (2-1-1) grabbed their second road win of 2013 thanks to goals from Josh Williams and Ben Speas. While pricey Brazilian striker Rafael marked his debut for United (1-2-1) with an impressive long-distance strike, it wasn’t enough on an afternoon that saw Columbus goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum outduel United counterpart Bill Hamid.
Gruenebaum reeled off stunning saves in quick succession on Lionard Pajoy, Brandon McDonald and De Rosario to preserve the Columbus lead, but he wasn’t as busy as Hamid, who was forced into seven stops as the visitors controlled the match.
“We’ve played some good football at times,” Hamid said. “But the dominating play is something that we haven’t done that we did last year. Getting the ball, possessing, moving side to side and opening teams up. But we’ll find it.”
Although United knew set pieces were key to Columbus’ attack, they struggled on them nonetheless.
The Crew jumped in front when Hamid was caught in no-man’s land on Tyson Wahl’s 15th-minute free kick, allowing Williams to nod home his shot with ease. Then early in the second half, a Crew corner kick forced Hamid into back-to-back saves on Chad Marshall and Wahl.
“He’s a monster. I wish I didn’t have to see him make so many great saves,” coach Ben Olsen said. “The game could have been 8-0.”
But those stops ultimately went for naught, as Speas in the 58th minute blasted a shot past Hamid after the goalkeeper bobbled a free kick and McDonald’s half-clearance only reached the top of the box.
“We just had too many careless giveaways and gave them chances on set pieces,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “And they punished us for it.”
There were, in fact, some moments of inspiration from United. Eight minutes after Williams opened the scoring, Rafael shrugged off a challenge from Columbus centerback Glauber before unleashing a 35-yard volley that sneaked under the napping Gruenebaum.
While United appeared to take the lead just before halftime when substitute Kyle Porter slotted a shot in, the goal after a lengthy delay was waved off. Even though Porter was onside, Pajoy — the player who initially went after James Riley’s pass down the right flank — was not.
“I thought it was the right call,” Olsen said. “But you don’t make the right call after you let the play go. You just don’t do it. So he screws up the first one, then he screws up again.”
The silver lining for United is they have plenty of time to work out their issues, with the club’s next match coming April 5 at Sporting Kansas City.
As Pontius noted, “Most of it is getting into a rhythm and getting that confidence to be able to play. You underestimate how much confidence can weigh on a player’s mind.”
“We’ve got two weeks now for me to whip this team into shape and make sure we get back to basics,” Olsen said. “Right now, the team doesn’t have a lot of the good things that we had at the end of the last year. I’ve got to get that in them very quickly.”