D.C. United phased out its Eastern European stars in the offseason, and four games into the year, that move has produced mixed results.

United split with Albanian forward Hamdi Salihi during the winter, less than 12 months after pronouncing him the team's long-term solution.

Salihi was a bust, even if at some level United didn't give him an adequate chance. It took him seven games to score his first goal, and by the end of the season he was a seldom-used substitute. Salihi's replacement, 20-year-old Brazilian striker Rafael, scored in his debut Saturday with an audacious strike from 35 yards.

But United (1-2-1, four points) still lost to Columbus 2-1 because it failed to control possession -- as it has all season.

"We've played some good football at times," United goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. "But the dominating play is something we haven't done that we did last year -- getting the ball, possessing, moving side to side, opening teams up."

That's exactly the presence Montenegrin midfielder Branko Boskovic brought last year. But six months after the club finally gave him a deserved contract extension in June 2012, he left for personal reasons. No surprise: He's back at Rapid Vienna, his and Salihi's previous club.

Meanwhile, United needs a playmaking midfielder. John Thorrington, who helped fill the role somewhat, is out two to three months with a knee injury.

United coach Ben Olsen said after the Crew match that his team has to get back to basics. But it's hard to build a foundation when there's a significant piece missing.

- Craig Stouffer