Orlando City move provides Justin Meram with new challenge, change of scenery
A soccer player's career can be a bit like Newtonian physics. A player finds himself on a certain trajectory, be it positive or negative, and it takes an outside force to alter that path.
So it went for Justin Meram. In 2017, he enjoyed a career season, with 13 goals and seven assists, as the Columbus Crew reached the Eastern Conference finals. Meram had spent seven seasons in Columbus, a period in which he had grown into one of the league's better attacking players. He was feeling restless, desiring a change of scenery, though playing under manager Gregg Berhalter acted as a counterweight.
Then the outside force arrived. During the season, the team's proposed move to Austin, Texas, leaked out. For Meram, it proved to be a tipping point and amplified his desire to try something new. So during the offseason he asked for a trade, and earlier this week, it was consummated. The Crew dealt Meram to Orlando City for $1.05 million in allocation money, along with an international roster spot.
"It had an impact on my decision. I'd be lying if I said it didn't," said Meram about the team's possible move. "Let's be real, the Columbus Crew is the team that drafted me in 2011 and gave me a chance to fulfill my dream. I have so much love for that city and for that club and for those fans. So for me, hearing the news is definitely not easy, and I hope the team stays, and I hope it all works out for them."
Meram made it clear that the potential move wasn't his only motivation, however. In fact, he feels he's improved his situation on a variety of levels.
"I wanted to play in a bigger market, a bigger club, that is up there with the unbelievable stadiums around the league, and Orlando is right there," he said. "I wanted to play for a new coach and a new group of guys and just test myself in another place."
Meram will certainly be doing that in Orlando, a team that has undergone a considerable makeover. Gone is Brazilian legend Kaka, Antonio Nocerino and the team's leading scorer for the last three years, Cyle Larin. In their places are attacking midfielder Sacha Kljestan, midfielder Josue Colman, and holding midfielder Uri Rosell. This is on the back of acquisitions the team made in the latter half of last year, like forward Dom Dwyer and midfielder Yoshi Yotun.
It's an approach that definitely has a live-for-today vibe to it, especially with manager Jason Kreis having been unable to lead the team to the postseason in his first full campaign with the team last year. While Colman is 19, the rest have considerable experience, with both Kljestan and Meram having made at least 200 appearances with MLS sides.
So many changes can create its own set of problems, as teammates try to get to know one another and recognize each other's tendencies. Meram acknowledges that will be a challenge.
"I'm sure it's not going to be a smooth transition. I'm sure there's going to be some difficult moments," he said. "But I think the reason I succeed is I work really hard and I put my head down and want to learn. I'm just excited. This is a big club that hasn't had the success. I love that I can come in here and bring that. I know we're going to have some great moments on the field."
By all appearances, Meram seems like Kreis' kind of player, one who is dynamic, technical and able to do damage in the attacking half. Kreis' approach has long been one that emphasizes keeping the ball on the ground with a lot of movement.
"I think that's going to work to my strengths," said Meram.
The prospect of playing alongside Kljestan is one that has considerable appeal for Meram, given that he spent the past five seasons playing with another exceptional No. 10 in Federico Higuain.
"You hated playing against Kljestan because he's so competitive," said Meram. "He's a guy that has a lot of quality, especially passing the ball, and finding the open player, so I'm excited to work off him for sure."
It's just one of several reasons why Meram thinks the change will see his stock continue to rise.
"When you're in a place for seven years, you're ready for the next chapter," he said. "My time is now. I needed a change, a change of scenery, a new set of teammates, a new philosophy from a coaching staff. I'm just taking myself from a comfortable position to an uncomfortable situation and having to adapt and grow as a player."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.