COLUMBUS, Ohio – In Columbus Crew SC’s 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls Sunday, the hosts went up before either team had a chance to blink.
With a play they’ve run on a regular basis all season, Wil Trapp pinged a long ball to Kei Kamara, who flicked a header toward goal. Ethan Finlay sped up to control it with his head before getting crushed by New York’s Matt Miazga.
But when the ball fell from Finlay’s control, it dropped right to the waiting Justin Meram, who smashed home the opener to stun the Red Bulls and ignite the Columbus crowd nine seconds into the game – matching his jersey number.
“It’s a play we work on,” Meram said. “I was just lucky enough that the ball fell to me, and I put it away. Those are moments you wait for in your life, and I’m just blessed and thankful for my teammates and everyone who put me in that position to put that goal in.”
For Meram, the goal came at the conclusion of very long week.
He traveled to Chinese Taipei during the week with the Iraq national team, flying for nearly 20 hours in each direction before training for the first time with Crew SC on Friday.
“It was tough,” he said. “My body got banged up a little bit, but hats off to [the training staff] for putting in the time to get me healthy for this game.”
Everyone knew the play was coming, including Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch. He called it “incredible” that his team could “dig a hole like that nine seconds into the game.”
“You just wonder how something like that can happen in a big game like this,” he said. “We talked all week about those kinds of plays and them playing direct to Kamara and Finlay running off, and we don’t do well enough on a play that we talked about and prepared for all week.”
For Berhalter, the play is a staple of creating pressure early in a match.
While the play worked against the Chicago Fire once this season – July 19, when the play sprung Finlay to earn the fastest penalty kick in MLS history – it’s not expected to earn a goal every time.
“It all depends on winning the first ball, and Kei did a fantastic job of that and Ethan followed it up with Justin running in as well,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s not something that’s going to work all the time, but it can be effective in creating pressure early in the game. Whether you score or not, you can create some pressure.”
But the way Sunday’s opener was orchestrated was just a bit different, according to Trapp.
“Kei even said it right before [the kickoff], he ran from one side to the other side,” Trapp said. “So he started on the left and then made a diagonal run in front of [Ronald] Zubar. Usually he just runs straight, so it probably drew Miazga out a little bit and that created space for Justin.
“Kei made a great play, Ethan made an excellent play and got destroyed after he played it. And then Justin’s eyes were probably as big as they’ve ever been when that ball bounced to him, and it was a great finish. … It was a great way to start the game.”
And while the coaches said the play didn’t change their gameplan, Trapp admitted it was hard to treat the next few moments like a normal match.
“You almost don’t believe it,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’ It’s that quick. And then excitement takes over and you want to play more. This is the perfect start we could ask for and let’s see what else we can do.
“You’re so prepared for it to be a cagey playoff game. Then it opens up in nine seconds and they’re flustered, you’re a little flustered and it goes haywire there for ten minutes.”