Wiebe: The best winger in MLS? That'd be Columbus Crew SC's Justin Meram

Editor's Note (May 26, 2017)

Columbus Crew SC are in Toronto for a Friday night match against TFC (7pm ET | TSN1/3/4/5; MLS LIVE in US), and it's worth taking a look at Andrew Wiebe's recent case for winger Justin Meram as the best of MLS.
—Ben Couch, Senior Editor

Original Text

Justin Meram is a bonafide star, and the best winger in MLS. This is not a hot take.

It shouldn't be, at least, not if you've been watching even somewhat closely this year – and I'm not just saying this because of the hat-trick Meram dropped on the Montreal Impact this weekend, the first of his seven-year professional career.

What about Ignacio Piatti, you might be asking? Or Romain Alessandrini, Alberth Elis or David Accam? Are you watching the games? Or are you just looking at the stats?

I can assure you I'm doing both. Meram has been a terror from the jump in 2017, straight out of the Piatti mold as a left-sided player equally comfortable flaring wide to isolate fullbacks, sparking-then-leading the counterattack with work on both sides of the ball, tucking in centrally to pull the strings and banging in goals via late-arriving runs. He has now surpassed the Montreal DP as the league's best at that spot.

Sound like high praise? It should – Piatti has been the gold standard for wide attackers in this league, and a template for MLS teams to pursue in the international market. Only Crew SC didn't have to go out and pay a seven-figure transfer fee for Meram. The Iraqi international was made in America, a product of the Michigan youth soccer scene and college system, and he's in his prime, four years younger than his Argentine counterpart on Saturday at Stade Saputo. 

And while Piatti may yet reclaim his throne this season, Meram is the best winger in MLS right this very second. Thanks to Opta, we can quantify my claim. Here's where the 28-year-old stacks up against the rest of the league so far in 2017.

  • T-3rd in goals (7)
  • T-8th in assists (4)
  • T-1st in chances created from open play (19)
  • 4th in shots on goal (16)
  • 1st in dribbles attempted (79)
  • 1st in dribbles completed (35)

Those numbers speak plenty loud, and Meram passes the eye test just fine as well. Ask any right back in MLS.

If you've been watching since the Michigan man entered MLS in 2011, you know this has been a steady build from reserve to game-changer. It hasn't always been this way.

The table below shows Meram's production per 90 minutes each year of his career. The progression is both eye opening and unsurprising in its way. It takes time for players to adapt to the professional game, and it takes time for coaches to give attackers – particularly domestic ones – the keys to the car.

Year Minutes Played Goals (ex. PKs) Assists Chances Created Shots Dribbles Attempted Dribbles Completed
2011 515 0 0.17 2.27 1.57 1.92 0.87
2012 960 0.38 0.09 1.03 2.53 3.85 1.41
2013 781 0.12 0.12 1.61 2.42 2.77 1.04
2014 1683 0.43 0.21 1.34 2.78 4.17 1.71
2015 2230 0.24 0.2 1.41 3.03 3.35 1.65
2016 2605 0.14 0.45 1.66 2.63 5.56 2.56
2017 1007 0.63 0.36 1.79 2.32 7.06 3.13

These days there's no doubt who's driving the Columbus attack, with plenty of help steering and navigating from Federico Higuain and Ola Kamara.

Not only that, Meram has room to improve. While he's one goal away from his career high of eight, his expected assist production per 90 has dropped from 2016, when he dished out 14 assists. Those numbers could correct themselves, though it's more likely that Meram has been asked to take on more of the goalscoring load himself in 2017 after playing more as a facilitator last year.

Regardless, goals are goals no matter if you score them or set them up. Meram does both, and he's doing so at a Best XI clip. He'll also be in Columbus for the foreseeable future after signing a multi-year extension in March (thanks TAM!).

Justin Meram is the best winger in MLS, and a bonafide star. That's not a hot take. Not in 2017.

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