Justin Meram had done it all before. Walking into MAPFRE Stadium well before the kickoff of a game, heading to the home locker room to get ready and going out on to the field for warmups became routine for the winger during his first seven seasons as a professional. But then last offseason, Meram requested a trade and was sent to Orlando City SC.
While things started well in Florida, they did not end well. After playing in just 17 games with one goal and three assists — a far cry from his 13 goals and seven assists with the Black & Gold the year prior — Meram was traded back to Columbus at a discounted rate. On Saturday, he made his return to MAPFRE Stadium, back at home.
“I was nervous for sure,” Meram said following the match. “A different kind of nervous since it is my first game since coming back.”
In a dream scenario, one that many in the Meram family that made their way down from Michigan on a bus for the match likely had, Justin would have come off the bench in a 0-0 game and scored the game-winning goal. It didn’t work out quite like that — it was Gyasi Zardes who nabbed the winner in the first minute of stoppage time — but Meram’s impact was felt.
From the moment he subbed on for Mike Grella in the 60th minute, you could tell things were back to normal for the winger. He slipped a pass to Federico Higuain with one of his first touches. That play, one familiar to Crew SC fans, almost netted the Black & Gold the opener. Meram was his usual active self, finding open space in the attack and working back defensively. It felt like he had hardly been gone.
“When I’m on the sideline watching it, it was a pleasure, because I saw the danger again,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said of Meram. “I saw the ability to make passes, to take guys on and we’ve missed that a little, and it was really good to see. So, I think it was more than I expected for him; a little bit rusty, coming into the game, and really changing the game.”
While it was special to be back on the field with a team he is more or less comfortable with, that was nothing compared to the reception Meram received. From the time the trade with Orlando was confirmed on Aug. 2 until the moment his number — yes, he’s got number nine back — went up on the sidelines, Meram was back to being a fan favorite.
From his mentions on social media to the the pregame Tifo to the 60th minute reintroduction to the way the crowd waited for him to come over to the Nordecke after the match, it was a special night all around for Meram.
“Fantastic,” he said of his return. “First of all, I want to thank from the bottom of my heart all of the fans. Leading up to the game, during warmups, the Tifos, when I subbed in, when I stepped off the field, it was emotional for me and my family. So thankful and words cannot describe the feeling that I had when they cheered and erupted when I stepped on the pitch. So once again, thank you so much to this fan base because for me, I have grown so much over the years, and you know they have been right there supporting me.”
The next step for Meram is getting fully fit and getting used to some of his new teammates. He said the 30-plus minutes he played on Saturday night felt good but that was his first game action in over a month so it will take time to get into 90-minute shape. Meram also needs to develop chemistry with left back Milton Valenzuela and Zardes, both of whom were not on the team when he last wore the black and gold.
But for a return to MAPFRE Stadium, and an emotional one at that, it was a good experience for Meram and something he can build on the rest of the season.
“He knows why he’s an important part of the team, and he showed it,” Berhalter said of Meram. “He showed it right away, and it was good to see. It was a great ovation by the fans, I think it was an emotional night that I think he handled exceptionally well.”