COLUMBUS, Ohio — Atlanta United spent a lot of money in the transfer window and a lot of time during the preseason in an attempt to play better defense for 90 minutes.

The Five Stripes, only a few months removed from having their season ended by Columbus in the playoffs, lost the season opener 1-0 to the Crew on Saturday because, you guessed it, several players “switched off” for a few seconds at Field.

After being outplayed by the Crew, who received their championship rings before the game, in the first half, Atlanta United tried to rally in the second half. Brad Guzan stopped a penalty kick to keep the game close, but Atlanta United’s attackers, of whom a lot is expected this season, produced more attacks but couldn’t produce the tying goal.

Columbus finished with more shots, 16-5, and expected goals, 2.2-0.6, in a match that seemed much like the two played here that was won by the Crew in November during the postseason.

“I think today we did a very good job, especially the second half. I was very happy with the response of the players,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “It was not easy to play the champion, the first game of the season, and they did a great job. I liked what I see in the locker room, the belief that they have in themselves. And yeah, we lost today, we cannot change that. But I think, especially the second half, the performance is encouraging.”

Pineda selected a lineup that consisted of striker Giorgos Giakoumakis, attacking midfielder Thiago Almada, wingers Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva, central midfielders Tristan Muyumba and Bartosz Slisz, fullbacks Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley, centerbacks Stian Gregersen and Derrick Williams and Guzan. It was the team debuts for Slisz, Williams and Gregersen.

Atlanta United’s defense was under pressure from the start. Guzan was forced into a save early as the Crew frequently were able to easily pass-and-move their way through Atlanta United’s lines.

Atlanta United attempted to pin Columbus to the sidelines when it had the ball. It worked for a bit. But when Atlanta United won back the ball, Pineda said the team didn’t connect passes. Columbus would win the ball back. The Crew started to break that pressure and then hit long passes across the field, forcing Atlanta United’s players to do a lot “of dirty running,” as Guzan described it.

Atlanta United maintained its focus for 26 minutes.

As soon as the players “switched off,” Columbus pounced, taking advantage in the 27th minute when Cucho Hernandez scored from a cross by Diego Rossi. Rossi got behind Lobjanidze to reach a ball into space from Yaw Yeboah, the recipient of one of the long cross-field passes.

Gregersen was slow to move over to try to get to Rossi, who hit a low cross that curled away from Atlanta United’s goal. Columbus’ Jacen Russell-Rowe made a run past Gregersen to the front post that drew Guzan, who deflected the cross. The ball went to the unmarked Hernandez at the back post. Each of Atlanta United’s defenders and midfielders had slid to their right toward Yeboah because of the long cross.

“You try to make a play on it knowing that the two runners are in the center of the box and can certainly, they can make a play on it,” Guzan said. “It’s a bit of a bang, bang play.”

The goal was scored on Columbus’ eighth shot. Atlanta United had yet to take one as it continued to struggle against Columbus’ pressure.

Guzan and Pineda said the team could have done better to pressure the ball on the cross to Yeboah.

“You talk about potentially one mistake not leading into two mistakes, the three mistakes, the four mistakes, and we’ve got them on that side of the field and at that moment, we’ve, we’ve got to keep them there and not let them out of pressure,” Guzan said. “And whether it’s making a tackle, whether it’s blocking a run, whether it’s denying the ability in the space to switch the ball because once they switch it, now we’re scrambling because we’re outnumbered on the other side of the field, right?”

Russell-Rowe hit the post a few minutes after Hernandez’s goal. Gregersen blocked another close-range shot taken by an open Columbus player a few minutes later.

The Crew finished the half with 12 shots, two on goal. Atlanta United finished with one and one.

Atlanta United started the second half well, with Almada finding Giakoumakis, whose shot went wide right. Pineda said at halftime that the coaching staff discussed with the players the positioning of the fullbacks to try to limit the effectiveness of the switches of play, as well as the fullback becoming more involved in the attack.

“I think in the second half, once we start to do that, and to secure the ball and to have some sort of possession-activated wingers (go) faster, we start to be more dangerous,” he said. “And then suddenly, we start to have control of the game.”

But Columbus played a ball over all of Atlanta United’s lines on its ensuing possession. Farsi was tackled in the box by Gregersen, which resulted in a penalty kick after a video review. It took a long time for the referee, a replacement used because of the ongoing lockout, to go through the sequence. It started with what looked to be an offside call made by the assistant referee against Farsi. Instead, the assistant, also a replacement, raised his flag to signal a foul. Farsi also was injured on the play and stayed down in the box, which added to the confusion. Pineda said he thought it was a soft foul.

Hernandez took the ball at the spot in the 54th minute and hit a hard shot to Guzan’s right. Guzan dove and stopped the shot. The deflection was cleared, keeping Atlanta United in the match. It was the fourth penalty kick saved by Guzan in his Atlanta United career and his first since 2019.

Atlanta United’s best chance to tie the score came in the 71st minute when Silva and Giakoumakis broke through. Silva drew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte toward him before laying the ball off to Giakoumakis. Trying to shoot from an uncomfortable angle, Giakoumakis’ effort hit Schulte’s right hand. It was just enough to deflect away the ball and end the threat.

Tyler Wolff and Jay Fortune came on for Silva and Muyumba in the 80th minute. Wolff went in for Almada in the 90th minute. His curling shot was blocked out for a corner kick that Atlanta United couldn’t take advantage of.

“I thought we did well, second half, I thought we were the better team,” Williams said. “We had our chances. And look, a lot of teams are going to come here, and they’re going to get four or five put past them. So defensively, I thought we did pretty well, but we’re still building.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 at Columbus, 2 p.m.

March 9 vs. New England, 7:30 p.m.

March 17 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

March 23 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., FOX

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., FOX

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FOX

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.