Columbus Crew's Justin Meram hoping to make the jump from super sub to impact starter
OBETZ, Ohio – Justin Meram has never enjoyed being labeled a super sub.
The fourth-year Michigan product has always maintained his desire to be a starter, despite finding a role as a late game spark for Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew.
But Meram got his chance Saturday, starting on the left wing against the LA Galaxy.
“The previous game, I came in against Toronto and the coaching staff said I did a pretty good job and kind of changed the game,” Meram said. “When I got the nod against LA, they told me I should start like that.”
He came out of the gate on fire, scoring a goal and notching an assist in the first half of the surprising 4-1 rout of LA, and showed his value as a member of the starting XI in the process. Rather than changing his mentality from substitute to starter, Meram was instructed to play the same way he would if the team needed a late goal.
“Sometimes you want to be a little conservative from the get-go, and not exert all your energy at once, kind of pace yourself,” he said. “On Saturday, I said, ‘Screw that, I’m just going to give it all I’ve got and when I’m exhausted they can make a change.’”
Berhalter knows that Meram has talent, and is working to shape him into a more consistent threat.
“We’re working with Justin,” Berhalter said. “We’re working with him on the consistency and his own expectations of his performance. We know that he has ability, and he can be a game-changer. You saw that on Saturday night, when he made a couple of plays.”
The Berhalter system has benefitted Meram, who is a natural forward. On the wing under former head coach Robert Warzycha, Meram was often burdened with defensive responsibilities that would limit him on the offensive end.
Under Berhalter’s possession and pressing style, Meram has grown more comfortable.
“The Crew staff emphasizes defense tremendously on us, still,” he said. “But our system allows us to defend a little bit higher, which lets us attack in a higher position. In years past, I remember us defending in our own box most of the game, trucking all the way back. Then it’s, ‘OK, we won the ball,’ and you have to go another 90 yards and it’s unrealistic.”
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The system helps, but Meram is also four years more experienced and four years more adjusted to MLS.
“It’s just more games, more years, getting smarter,” he said. “This system kind of fits technical guys like myself. We’re getting the ball, getting turned and looking at goal. So that helps me a bit.”
As evidenced by his inch-perfect pass from a fake shot for Ethan Finlay’s goal Saturday, Meram is also reading the game better.
“I think he’s seeing what’s in front of him,” Berhalter said. “He’s taking the information in and making the right decision of what’s available.”