D.C. United sputters to 2-0 loss at Columbus Crew


COLUMBUS, Ohio — To turn D.C. United’s fortunes, Coach Wayne Rooney has stressed the importance of consistency. The captivating finish to the season opener fueled optimism, but Rooney was the first to temper enthusiasm and push for a repeat performance Saturday.

United fell behind by two goals in the first half and never found its way, falling to the Columbus Crew, 2-0, before a sellout crowd of 20,391.

Lucas Zelarayán scored on clinical finishes early and late in the half. Both opportunities were the result of D.C.’s defensive deficiencies. Rooney called them “really sloppy goals.”

Defender Victor Palsson called them “two very [poor] goals to concede — two goals we make it way too easy for them.” Goalkeeper Tyler Miller called them “such easy chances.”

United (1-1-0) did have multiple opportunities before intermission but showed little attacking potency in the second half.

Any hope of a late uprising — as in the 3-2 comeback victory over Toronto FC a week earlier at Audi Field — was cast aside by a Columbus side (1-1-0) playing its home opener following a 4-1 loss at the Philadelphia Union, MLS’s Eastern Conference favorite.

Christian Benteke, United’s high-priced striker, failed to finish two high-quality chances in the first half, and Mateusz Klich, United’s high-end midfielder, did not make much of an impression. The team’s other marquee attacker, Taxi Fountas, remains sidelined with a hamstring injury.

“You have teams who over the last two, three years have been toward the top of the table,” Rooney said. “From our point of view, that’s where we want to get to, and we have to be more consistent. We’re going to lose games. We know that, but we have to make sure we don’t give up opportunities or concede goals so easily. … And we have to be more clinical.”

Rooney didn’t mess much with what worked in the opener, making just one lineup change: Fully recovered from illness, captain Steven Birnbaum reclaimed his place on the back end after coming off the bench against Toronto. Rooney opted to pair him with Palsson, 31, rather than Matai Akinmboni, 16.

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“Matai is a 16-year-old, and I need to make sure I protect him,” Rooney said. “He’s not ready to play all games.”

Columbus seized the lead in the 10th minute. Cucho Hernández worked the left side and crossed into the center of the box. Zelarayán used his body to shield the ball from Russell Canouse, then spun and laced a 14-yard shot beyond Miller’s reach and into the far corner.

United showed promise in its attack before and after the goal, moving the ball effectively to create space and opportunity. The best chances came in the 24th and 36th minutes on Benteke headers. Crew goalkeeper Eloy Room made a leaping touch save on the first one before the Belgian striker snapped a seven-yard bid just over the crossbar.

United’s optimism faded just before intermission. Alexandru Matan settled Steven Moreira’s pass and found himself unchallenged from 30 yards out. Birnbaum did not step up. Matan slipped the ball ahead to Zelarayán, who had made a run into a pocket behind D.C.’s captain. With an angled one-timer — a searing bid that streaked over Miller — Zelarayán doubled the lead in the 44th minute.

With nothing brewing in the second half, Rooney turned to Jackson Hopkins, 18, and Ted Ku-DiPietro, the 21-year-old hero of the opener.

Columbus kept its grip on the match, preventing United from testing Room and keeping the game at a tempo to its liking. Though the margin was within reach, the game seemed over well before the final whistle.

“Last weekend was amazing. This weekend not so great,” Miller said. “But now we know we have a lot to improve on.”

Here’s what else to know about United’s loss:

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Each of the first three matches pairs D.C. newcomers with their longtime former teams. In the opener, backup goalkeeper Alex Bono, a free agent signing, crossed paths with former Toronto teammates after eight seasons in Ontario.

On Saturday, it was midfielder Pedro Santos’s turn following six seasons, 155 regular season appearances, 147 starts and the 2020 MLS Cup title for the Crew. He, too, joined United via free agency. Thirty minutes before kickoff, the public address announcer welcomed him back to Columbus, drawing a warm response from fans.

“I felt very happy with the reception,” he said. “Tonight was special.”

Next Saturday, when United hosts Orlando City, right back Ruan will see old friends after four seasons, 101 matches and 91 starts. D.C. acquired him for the No. 2 pick in the MLS draft.

Asad, Williams make debut

Two days after beginning his third tour with United, Argentine attacker Yamil Asad made the game-day roster, wearing No. 22. He entered for forward Nigel Robertha in the 80th minute.

Derrick Williams, acquired from the Los Angeles Galaxy and projected to partner with Birnbaum in central defense, was in uniform after missing much of preseason and the opener with a leg injury. He entered for left back Mohanad Jeahze in the 85th minute.

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