Justin Meram looks for options

COLUMBUS, Ohio – For Justin Meram, the start of the 2019 season isn’t coming with a new set of expectations or a target number of goals and assists.

Instead, after a tumultuous and disappointing 2018 season, Meram is just trying to be happy and relaxed again.

“I’m just free in my mind,” he said. “There are so many things, just off the field, as a player – being comfortable with the city, your friends, your family, [the media], the training, my teammates.”

Meram never quite settled in to last season.

In the offseason before the 2018 season, he requested a move away from the team that drafted him, Columbus Crew SC, partially due to the team’s possible move to Austin. Then-Crew coach Gregg Berhalter gave Meram his wish, trading him to Orlando City.

But Meram struggled to find form, fitness and comfort in Orlando. He made just 17 appearances between March and August, scoring one goal and adding three assists. He struggled with fan and management expectations, and was traded back to Columbus Aug. 3.

Back in Columbus, Meram showed sparks of the player he could be, but notched just one goal and one assist for the remainder of the season as he readjusted to his new-old team.

Now, after an offseason ankle surgery and a regime change in Columbus, Meram said he’s “feeling better” and in a better place both physically and mentally.

“For me, it’s a different mentality going into this year,” he said. “I felt like I needed to prove something right when I got to Orlando. There was pressure and you’re forcing things and [now] I’m just letting it come natural. I’m happy, my mind is clear and I’m just going to work hard and try to contribute the best I can.”

New Crew head coach Caleb Porter is well aware of Meram’s 2018 struggles. He said he’s working on “defining his role” in Columbus, and sees “man-management” and “psychology” as important factors as well.

“He had a rough year,” Porter said. “These guys are human beings. Coaches have rough games, rough years. We’re humans, we’re not robots. So I think, with me, I try to look at him and say, ‘It’s in there. Let’s see if we can get it out again.’”

Porter said that work – getting the best out of his players – is “a coach’s responsibility.” He said when a player “has the potential to be a quality, top player,” a coach has failed if he doesn’t bring that out.

“So with Justin, to some extent we’re getting him back to the form that he was in in 2015 and 2016 and 2017,” Porter said. “For me, when I look at him in those three years, specifically, he was one of the top wingers in the league. So we know it’s in there. So I’m motivated to kind of bring that back out of him.”

While Porter works to get the best out of him, Meram said he’s not putting any extra pressure on himself.

Instead of focusing on personal goals, he said he just wants to win.

“When you set those numbers, you’re adding an unnecessary pressure,” he said. “Let your play speak for yourself. I’ve always said this: I don’t need to score 14 goals like I had in [2017] if we don’t win MLS Cup. Give me a handful of goals, a handful of assists and we’re playing well and winning and lifting some hardware. That’s your job.”