When the 2017 season began for Columbus Crew SC, fans had high expectations for midfielder Justin Meram following his stellar campaign in 2016.
Although Crew SC had a lackluster performance on the pitch, the winger enjoyed a productive 2016 season, scoring five goals and tallying 13 assists. He would go on to be voted Columbus’ Most Valuable Player.
Meram came flying out of the gates to began the 2017 campaign. The midfielder found the score sheet five times in the Black & Gold’s first seven matches and looked poised to have a record-breaking year.
“I was coming in with confidence, a new contract, and coming off a really good season,” Meram said of his early successes. “I didn’t want to drop.”
The midfielder’s most notable performance came on May 13th on the road against the Montreal Impact. Meram found the scoresheet three times at Stade Saputo, in route to his hat trick of the season and powered Crew SC to a 3-2 road victory.
Many people, including MLSsoccer.com’s Andrew Wiebe called Justin Meram the “best winger in Major League Soccer,” and that wasn’t an exaggeration. The Michigan native was the class of the league beating out some higher profile names such as David Accam, Romain Alessandrini, and Ignacio Piatti.
However, an injured ankle hampered Meram during the Atlanta United game on July 1. The winger was visibly in pain in the locker room following Crew SC’s 2-0 loss to Atlanta.
Meram expressed disappointment in his performance and made it apparent he wanted to turn things around quickly.
“(I have to) get back to playing at a high level,” Meram said of his performance. “I have to pick up my game and help out my team. When I’m playing at a high level it’s tough for opposing defenders to stop me.”
Since that match, Meram has only found the score sheet twice for the Black & Gold, but a recent change of tactics could be unleashing a new form of “J9.”
The midfielder hinted that Columbus’ change in formation, and his role in it, may be a key contributor to his lack of goal scoring in recent matches.
“Everyone’s talked about my form, but we have changed to a whole new system. [I feel] it’s changed my role,” Meram said of his recent performance. “We’ve had some good games and we’ve won some matches and that’s the positive.”
Head coach Gregg Berhalter isn’t worried about Meram’s dip in form either and emphasizes that he is incredibly confident in his midfielder.
“The rate he was (scoring) for a midfielder is extraordinary, that was always going to be hard to maintain,” Berhalter said. “I think he is still getting opportunities that we’re comfortable with.
He’s providing opportunities and getting opportunities, his shots have had a slight uptake lately. So I think all of that is pretty good. I think we just want continue to work and continue to improve.”
With the absence of playmaker Federico Higuain in the line up recently, Meram has stepped up and understands that he is more of an important player in the Crew SC offense.
Statistically, Meram has crept into second place statistically behind Higuain, averaging 1.6 key passes per match. Meram’s pass completions are an astounding 80 percent in the middle-third and 65 percent in the final third as he often looks to feed forward Ola Kamara or fellow winger Kekuta Manneh as they make runs into the box.
“I see myself as being more of a facilitator for the guys running through,” said Meram of his new role. “Now I have to add more to my game and make harder runs into the box.”
“That’s what I love most about my game, is [my ability] to get guys on the score sheet.”
Berhalter admires Meram’s ability to shoulder the load on offense and admitted the winger doesn’t have to be a consistent goal scorer for the team to be successful.
“As long as he continues to provide the quality that he has in key moments, we will be fine,” he said. “That’s the important thing. When he has the opportunity to make the final pass, he can do it.”
With six of the next eight matches at MAPFRE Stadium, Meram and his teammates will look to take as many points as possible as the Black & Gold make a run towards the MLS Cup Playoffs and Berhalter expects big things of his midfielder over the stretch.
“I think he is an offensive leader in this group,” he said of Meram. “We rely on him for a lot of production and it’s a big weight to bear but he can handle it.”
Meram already has eclipsed a career high in goal scoring this season, but the midfielder almost seemed to express disappointment that he wasn’t contributing more.
“Quite frankly, I should have more goals and more assists,” Meram said.
If Columbus is to achieve the team goals and make the postseason, the team will need both of those from Justin Meram.