Giancarlo Gonzalez, left, and the Columbus Crew shut out Fabian Espindola and D.C. United in the regular season opener for both teams Saturday at RFK Stadium. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen had preached patience through the preseason and asked victory-starved supporters not to render judgment right away. With seven new starters injected into a team that won three times last year, this promises to take a while.

But even with tempered expectations, Olsen and United were left disappointed with almost every aspect of a 3-0 opening loss to the Columbus Crew in front of 13,840 at RFK Stadium on Saturday night.

“We knew it was going to be a work in progress,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “We obviously didn’t want to start that way, though.”

United conceded goals nine minutes apart in the first half and placed one shot on target all evening — a 45-yard effort by Cristian Fernandez in the third minute that forced Steve Clark to make a leaping save. The outcome was all too familiar as United’s MLS regular season winless streak reached 13, bridging a busy winter of transactions.

“I don’t think anyone had a good game, and as a group we weren’t great,” Olsen said. “But again, some of this is to be expected. It’s a long season. I still believe in this crew. We’ll be fine.”

Despite all the roster moves, United still seems to lack someone who can create opportunities and break down a defense. Eddie Johnson, the U.S. national team forward acquired from Seattle, did not receive consistent service and was not sharp on the ball. Defensively, United was beaten badly on the first goal and did not receive any favors from replacement referee Andres Pfefferkorn on the second. (Amid a labor dispute, the regular officials were locked out Friday.)

The Crew scored in the 18th minute with an expert sequence. Hector Jimenez one-touched the ball to overlapping right back Josh Williams, who capitalized on United’s miscommunication and one-touched a bending cross into the heart of the penalty area. Jairo Arrieta, a Costa Rican World Cup candidate, beat Boswell and one-timed a 12-yarder past Bill Hamid.

Columbus stretched the lead in the 27th minute on Federico Higuain’s penalty kick.

Pfefferkorn’s ruling that Perry Kitchen had fouled Michael Parkhurst on Bernardo Anor’s corner kick did not sit well with United’s players, who swarmed the replacement official. Kitchen did appear to obstruct and, ever so briefly, hold the Columbus player pursuing the ball delivered to the unmanned back side. Whether a penalty was warranted remained at issue afterward.

“You hope you are not on the wrong end of a call from a naïve or inexperienced ref,” Olsen said of the league using substitute officials. “Unfortunately, the reality is I think we were on the wrong end of that. That is not the reason we lost the game; it didn’t help.”

United labored to generate opportunities in the second half — just fleeting chances without sustained build-up. Columbus’s hard tactics further disrupted United’s flow.

With nothing working, Olsen turned to the bench: Lewis Neal, Conor Doyle and Kyle Porter.

United threw players forward in the waning moments, producing a few corner kicks and stabs in the box. The only goal, however, came at the other end in the 90th minute as Justin Meram crossed to Higuain for a simple one-timer from 12 yards into the left corner.

“It’s always going to be hard to get things right immediately, but we didn’t expect to come in here and lose 3-0,” Hamid said.

“Overall,” Olsen said, “it was a disappointing night.”

United notes: Mayor Vincent C. Gray joined investors Will Chang and Jason Levien in a private box. . . . United is off until March 22 at Toronto. Next weekend’s scheduled match at Los Angeles was moved to Aug. 27 to accommodate the Galaxy’s international schedule this month. … Goalkeeper Joe Willis, defender Conor Shanosky, midfielder Collin Martin, midfielder-forward Christiano Francois and forward Michael Seaton were assigned to third-division Richmond for the Kickers’ preseason match against Virginia Commonwealth University. . . . Amos Magee, formerly with Portland, joined United’s coaching staff and will oversee the under-23 program.