Justin Meram focused on success in Columbus despite missing Iraq call-up
Over the past few seasons, Justin Meram has watched a parade of wide midfielders join up with Columbus Crew SC. Last year it was Danish international Emil Larsen. The year before he had to contend with Iceland international Kristinn Steindorsson. Cedrick Mabwati was breathing down Meram's neck during both campaigns.
This season, the likes of Dilly Duka, Hector Jimenez, Christian Martinez and Niko Hansen are all competing for playing time, yet no one has been able to displace the Michigan native. To hear Meram tell it, it's gotten to the point where it has become a running joke in the Crew locker room.
Any time a new player walks into the club's training center in Obetz, Ohio, Meram's teammates will ask him, "Is he a left winger?" The ribbing no doubt reached its peak last week when manager Gregg Berhalter sent midfielder Tony Tchani and $300,000 in targeted allocation money (TAM) to the Vancouver Whitecaps for -- you guessed it -- a left winger in Kekuta Manneh.
It's a dynamic that drew a chuckle out of Meram when it was brought up.
"Gregg loves his wing play, he loves his outside midfielders," he told ESPN FC via telephone. "I can't control what he does and who he brings in. If he wants to bring in two more wingers, go for it because I'm going to work extremely hard and dedicate myself to the game and help my teammates in any way possible."
Even with the arrival of Manneh, it's clear these days that Berhalter holds Meram in high regard. Meram, 28, was just signed to a TAM-level contract extension last month, and he hasn't suffered any post-contract letdown. He scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Orlando City last weekend. The brace gave him three goals on the season to go along with two assists in just five games, as well as praise from his manager.
"When we first got here, we saw flashes of potential, but Meram wasn't a complete player yet," Berhalter said. "Now he's worked on his game so much that he's at a point where he's well rounded in many qualities, and I think that's the biggest reason for his success.
"His movement off the ball is outstanding. His defensive work rate is very good. And then I think his overall understanding of how he fits into an overall offensive scheme has improved greatly."
Meram readily admits that it took him some time to hone the various parts of his game. He recalled "a lot of long nights" early in his career when he was mired on the bench behind the likes of Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers. He vowed to get better, but progress proved to be uneven. A spell of three goals in three games early in the 2012 campaign appeared to give him an opening, only for then-manager Robert Warzycha to take him out of the starting lineup again.
"After having a run like that, and being benched, as a young player, your mentality and confidence just immediately goes," he said. "It was tough."
For Meram, everything changed when Berhalter arrived prior to the 2014 season. The Crew manager brought with him a clear, attack-minded approach to the game that was perfectly suited to Meram's skill set.
"I was missing that direction," Meram said. "I didn't know how to move off the ball, I didn't know when to play one- and two-touch, didn't know when I could be free to showcase myself because we all know I love to have the ball at my feet, create, do something magical when the timing is right. This coaching staff came in and, as you've seen with Columbus the last couple of years, it's with a purpose, and it's with a style that fits me. They came at the perfect time."
Meram's game evolved along the way. He was more of a pure goal scorer in college, both at Yavapai College and the University of Michigan, a player content to use his speed to evade opposition defenders. In the pro game, his move to the wing forced him to be more of a provider. Last season his 13 assists tied him for third-most in the league.
"I really found a lot of joy in getting assists," he said. "The passes, just the weight of the ball, how you can play through the lines and eliminate three, four players with one great pass. More times than not, that is a better feeling than scoring. I really enjoyed seeing my teammates have success."
In a 3-2 win over the Portland Timbers on March 25, Meram enjoyed getting back among the goals as well, though it involved some mixed emotions. Had Meram been exactly where he wanted to be, he would have been thousands of miles away, suiting up for Iraq's national team in World Cup qualifiers against Australia and Saudi Arabia.
Meram first suited up for Iraq in 2014 after acquiring citizenship through his Iraqi-born parents. He's gone on to make over 20 appearances since. While the revised travel ban drawn up by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump no longer included Iraq, it did include Iran, where the Lions of Mesopotamia have been forced to play many of their "home" World Cup qualifiers due to the ongoing unrest in Iraq.
The Iraq Football Association tried to convince Meram that there wouldn't be any issues, but the player ultimately decided to withdraw his name from consideration for the two matches.
Meram insisted that there was more to his decision than the travel ban but declined to go into any additional detail. However, arriving at the decision was far from easy.
"I feel the weight of millions of Iraqis, wanting for me to play," he said. "That's tough, and I love my country and love how much the fans support me wherever I go, whether I'm playing in MLS -- Iraqis come out to every [MLS] stadium basically with flags and are cheering -- or if I'm in Iran or Saudi Arabia, wherever it may be. But I don't have any regrets because this was a decision I thought long and hard about, and I had to make ultimately the decision that was best for myself and my family.
I had no regrets on my decision, and it isn't a permanent thing. We'll see in the near future how it all unfolds."
At present, Meram is focused on life with the Crew and yet another new teammate to bring into the fold. While Manneh has long been one of the more highly touted young players in the league, Meram is undaunted by the increased competition Manneh's arrival will bring.
"I see it as a positive in many ways, and he's going to push me as well," said Meram about Manneh's arrival. "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."
That should prove to be more than enough to keep Meram in the lineup.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.