COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In big moments in Major League Soccer, teams need their best players to rise to the top. On Saturday night, in front of 18,690 fans at MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus Crew SC needed that from Justin Meram.
Tied at 1-1 with the Chicago Fire in the second half, Columbus had to have a winner to end a three-match unbeaten run and create some breathing room for the sixth and final playoff spot. As he has done for much of the year, Meram provided.
After going down minutes before in the penalty box and receiving a yellow card for simulation, the Iraqi international latched on to a cross from left back Waylon Francis to deliver the game winner in what would eventually be a 3-1 victory.
“Great ball from Waylon,” Meram said of the 73rd-minute play that resulted in his goal. “He’s really good at serving that final pass. Finally, my ass gets in the box and puts away a one-touch finish.”
It would not have happened if not for an advantage call from referee Armando Villarreal. After a foul on Cristian Martinez in midfield, the center official allowed the play to go on as Wil Trapp advanced the ball.
"I think the referee did a good job tonight," head coach Gregg Berhalter said when asked about the play. "I don’t want to get in the habit of commenting on the performance of referees, but I think overall it was a difficult game and they did a good job."
The goal marked Meram’s 10th of the season, but only his second in the last 10 matches.
The team's transition to a new formation, combined with the extended absence of fellow midfielder Federico Higuain, has shifted Meram’s role from goal scorer to playmaker.
But on Saturday night, the winger was able to do both.
“I thought he did a good job,” Trapp said of Meram. “I think they’re fairly susceptible in transition and that’s what Justin really thrives in. I think in this role, he gets to mess with defenders. I think (Johan) Kappelhof was pretty much man to man with him the whole game, so the more Justin moves, the more it draws them out of shape.”
While the goal gave Columbus an important win, Meram’s finish was also significant in a historical way. The go-ahead strike marked the 1,000th goal in club history and moved Meram past Crew SC legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto for seventh in all-time club goals with 34.
For the club’s longest-tenured player, Saturday night’s goal means a lot for this season and for his place in Black & Gold history.
“I think there are a lot of quality guys,” Meram said of the accomplishment. “I’ve been at this club a long time and it means a lot to be up there with some players in the past.”