Chris Birchall of the Columbus Crew, right, dives for a loose ball against D.C. United. United is in fourth place in MLS’s Eastern Conference; two weeks ago it was in first. (John Grieshop/GETTY IMAGES)

In the wake of a miserable performance last weekend, D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen was looking for a ferocious response Saturday night.

What he received, instead, was a tame, uninspiring display until the final desperate moments, resulting in a third defeat in four matches and a fall into fourth place in MLS’s Eastern Conference.

Chris Birchall scored in the first minute of the second half and the Columbus Crew continued its mastery of D.C. in the Ohio capital with a 1-0 victory in front of 17,150 observers.

Two weeks ago United was in sole possession of first place in the tightly packed conference.

“Individuals go through bad patches and teams go through bad patches,” Olsen said. “It’s not going to be all roses here, right? I told you we have a long way to go to learn how to be a championship team.”

United (10-7-3) was firmer defensively after conceding seven goals in the previous two away matches, including four against Houston last Sunday. But the attack sputtered much of the evening and rarely sent a shot on target.

Chris Korb had the best chance to steal a point, but his rising bid from 12 yards in the 88th minute struck the left post.

“It felt good off the foot,” he said. “I didn’t see it, but I heard it.”

United pressed hard for the equalizer but was shut out for the second straight match.

“I thought we dug in deep late, but it’s easy to dig in deep late,” Olsen said. “We needed to dig in early and make sure we understand playing hungry and desperate even when you are in the top half of the standings is important. Until we realize that, we will continue to give up points.”

United is in a 1-5-1 rut with four goals scored at Columbus (7-7-4) since early in 2007.

“We’ve got to get back to where we were before,” midfielder Chris Pontius said, “and it’s going to take a little more commitment from everyone.”

Olsen’s experiment of playing Lewis Neal (two previous starts) in central midfield didn’t work. Dwayne De Rosario, the 2011 league MVP, continued to struggle and the chemistry that United showed much of the campaign was absent.

Before taking the lead, the Crew was cruelly denied a goal late in the first half when referee’s assistant Claudio Badea called Josh Williams offside on a leaping header off a free kick. Williams appeared level with defender Brandon McDonald.

There were no issues 52 seconds after the break. Jairo Arrieta sent a through ball behind Neal and into a gap in United’s central defense. With a clear run at goalkeeper Joe Willis, Birchall pushed into the penalty area and beat Willis with a low finish for just his second goal in 63 MLS games.

United had a beef with an offside call in the 50th minute. Pontius’s bid deep in the box was blocked and spun to De Rosario, who appeared even with Justin Meram before sweeping in the rebound. Badea’s flag, however, went up.

“They were poor all night long,” Olsen said of the officials.

De Rosario became more involved, stinging a one-timer from 22 yards wide of the right post and crossing dangerous balls into the box. Olsen made three changes in an 11-minute stretch, and despite playing with greater urgency and commitment, United couldn’t crack the Crew’s resistance.

“I’m concerned a little bit, yes,” De Rosario said, “but I still believe in these guys, and we’ll bounce back.”

United notes: Paris Saint-Germain will visit RFK Stadium next Saturday for a friendly. United’s next league match is Aug. 4 at home against the Crew.