Many Crew SC players have underperformed this year. A team doesn't miss the playoffs without several key performers failing to get the job done. One player in particular has bucked that trend, Justin Meram has had an excellent season on a team where many others regressed.
Meram's 2016 was impressive. He's tallied five goals, a bit of a drop off from his past two seasons, but he's added 12 assists, which more than doubles his totals in any other season. He also has played his consistently superior defense. His raw defensive numbers are the best of any midfielder or forward not named Wil Trapp which is impressive as he is doing the defensive dirty work from the wing.
At 27, Meram is at his peak and this puts the player and the team at a crossroads. From the player's view, is it time to look to other challenges. From the team's standpoint, how do they get the best value out of the player.
After the 2015 season, Meram made cryptic comments about being interested in a move abroad but ultimately stayed in Columbus. The team had an option on him and exercised it. Approaching the end of 2016, the team has another option on Meram and it's a near lock that head coach Gregg Berhalter will exercise it to keep Meram in Columbus.
Here is where the picture gets cloudy. 2017 is expected to be the last option year on Meram's contract. He will be out of contract after the end of next season and he has shown interest in playing abroad. The interest is understood to be mutual as there are overseas clubs tracking Meram who has been a standout for club and the Iraqi National Team. Columbus would have to offer a significant contract to keep Meram and there is no guarantee that the allure of playing overseas would prove to be too much to turn down. Columbus could be facing the prospect of losing Meram for no fee.
If the team want to get a return out of Meram, it's not as easy as just accepting the biggest bid that comes in for him and then putting in Cedrick Mabwati or Hector Jimenez. If Meram transfers, Crew SC would then have to replace a winger with a killer long range shot that can also create and plays stellar defense. That's a hard skill set to replicate. It likely wouldn't be cheap and it would take time to find a player who fits that profile and meshes with the system.
If Meram stays in Black and Gold in 2017, he'd form one of the building blocks for a team that is looking to rebound. It may be hard to recreate his assist totals, but he'd be chipping in goals, making good passes, and still playing above average defense. There wouldn't be a Meram sized hole in the team sheet. It's just trying to understand how valuable that is. The 2016 Crew SC was expected to be a title contender. Is the front office expecting the 2017 version to rebound into a upper tier team or will there be a year of rebuilding and consolidation. Essentially, will Meram's skills be wasted.
Ultimately, that's the question that Crew SC may need to answer: How much is the 2017 season of Meram worth to the team versus the nearly inevitable bids that will be coming in for him. On one hand you have the key piece of a team that may push back into the upper tier, but only have him for a year or you sell early, lose out on that year and hope to find a player that fits the system. Crew SC haven't found that yet even after trying with Kristinn Steindórsson, Cedrick Mabwati, and Emil Larsen.
The best solution for Crew SC is re-signing Meram to another long term contract with a significant raise to recognize his top performance in Berhalter's system. News that Columbus signed Meram to a new deal would be the best signing of the offseason no matter the other moves the team makes.
Correction: The article originally stated that Meram would be a free agent after 2017. The article has been updated to state that he will be out of contract for clarity sake. He will not be eligible for free agency within MLS.