Justin Meram - On the ball - Columbus
Greg Bartram

Stejskal: Justin Meram has no regrets after failed stint in Orlando

It’d be easy for Justin Meram to have regrets. To doubt himself. It’d be easy to punish himself for his choice to request a trade from Columbus Crew SC last winter, to wonder why he asked to leave something so comfortable for something so unknown.

It’d be easy for us to see him as misguided, to look at six months with Orlando City and wonder why he'd leave Ohio. To see two trade requests in six months as selfish.

It’d be easy, but it wouldn’t be the full story.

“The No. 1 thing is that I’m never embarrassed about the decision I made,” Meram told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “I’m proud that I took myself out of a comfortable situation and tried to challenge myself. In sports, it happens all the time where it doesn’t work out in places or it’s not the right fit. For me, I think it was one of those situations.”

For us to fully understand Meram’s tumultuous, emotional 2018, we need to first go back to last winter, when he decided he wanted out of Columbus. The 29-year-old winger had just finished the best season of his professional career, following up his excellent 2016 with 13 goals and seven assists in 2017 to help Crew SC to an appearance in the Eastern Conference Championship. Columbus had become his home, and Meram was at ease with the club that drafted him way back in 2011. He got along well with his teammates and coaches, he fit well in manager Gregg Berhalter’s system and he was happy off the field. He was important to Crew SC, and, having signed a new deal in March 2017, he probably could’ve stuck around and made a run at a career as a one-club man.

But part of him yearned for more. Meram had never known anything but Columbus as a pro. The Michigan-born Iraqi international liked it, but he wanted to see what else was out there. He needed to know if he could succeed in a different environment. He needed a new chance to grow. So, he asked for a trade. He’d spent his entire adult life with Crew SC. After seven seasons with the club, he felt like he needed to leave to find out more about his true self.

Meram had just one goal in 17 games with Orlando | USA Today Sports Images

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Ah, did you make a mistake?’ I didn’t make a mistake. I needed to do this, I needed to put myself in a position that was vulnerable and challenge myself,” he said.

A few teams made offers during the offseason, but Orlando came in over the top. The Lions ended up shipping $1.05 million in total allocation money and an international spot to Columbus for Meram, who was perhaps the biggest piece in an offseason overhaul that saw Orlando add Sacha Kljestan, Uri Rosell and Josue Colman, among others.

Optimism and expectations were high in the preseason, and things started off well enough. Meram looked good in Orlando’s opener against D.C. United and showed flashes during the club’s six-game winning streak in April and May. By the end of that run, however, something had turned. Meram wasn’t quite clicking on the field. Off it, he’d become a frequent target of fan ire on social media. The criticism prompted a somewhat infamous goal celebration in Orlando’s 2-1 loss to Atlanta on May 13. After putting Orlando on the board with what remains his lone goal this season, Meram ran up to Orlando’s supporters’ section, closed his eyes and put his fingers in his ears.

Meram was attempting to block out the criticism, but his celebration only prompted more. Things began to spiral for him and for Orlando. The loss against Atlanta began a nine-game losing streak for the Lions, who fired head coach Jason Kreis six games into the slide. Meram struggled to find his form and didn’t really bond with his teammates inside the locker room. By the end of June, the things he’d always loved about being a professional soccer player, the things that kept him animated in Columbus, weren’t making him feel anything in Orlando. The happiness he used to feel going to work was replaced by a general dullness. He felt himself becoming desensitized. He was no longer enjoying himself, only going through the motions.

“You kind of get in this funk. I’m like a very goofy, want to mess around with the guys, love coming to training guy, and all that was kind of gone,” he said. “It’s like I was walking in, doing the routine, getting taped, get in the gym, go train, come back, shower, do a little rehab and then go home and it was like all becoming a blur. Instead of staying after and wanting to be around the staff and joking with the guys, it became a blur.”

It didn’t help that the off-field issues were compounding. Meram gave an interview to Pro Soccer USA on June 28 in which he said that he’d dealt with “death threats” from Orlando fans, then later clarified that fans had wished death upon him but hadn’t threatened to act. He didn’t want to get into too many specifics about the nature of the threats and made sure to express his thanks for the “many fantastic fans” who supported him throughout his time in Orlando, but he said he at times felt afraid in Florida.

“It was tough for me because nobody believes you except maybe you and your family,” he said. “I won’t get into too much detail because this has kind of been in the past, but when people know your every move and send you messages, it kind of puts some fear in you, having to look over our shoulder and worry about that.”

The day after he spoke about the threats, Meram was excused by Orlando for three days due to personal reasons, putting him out for their June 30 match at Atlanta. Hours after his absence was announced, the Lions hired James O’Connor as Kreis’ replacement. O’Connor gave him a shot the following week in his first match in charge, playing Meram the second half of their July 7 loss at LAFC, but the winger felt like his departure was already in motion.

“That kind of was the starting point,” he said. “And then having the club thinking it’s best to send me away for a couple days when the team headed to Atlanta, that was tough because you want to play the games and you want to find your level again and any game can change that moment for you, you know?

“So that was tough when the club asked, when the GM [Niki Budalic] and the interim coach [Bobby Murphy] thought it was best for me to just get away for a couple days. And then coming back, I came back to a new coach. So, there were just a lot of little things that kept adding up, adding up, adding up and it was more or less, kind of just, OK, maybe this isn’t working out.”

Meram said he met with O’Connor in the days after the LAFC match, and the two agreed that it’d be best for the club to try to move him. He didn’t fit into the way the new boss wanted to play, and he was as unhappy as he’d been in years. He’d wanted to try something new, but he didn’t understand how good he’d had it in Columbus. He’d reached the point in Orlando where he realized that.

He’d also hit the point where he admitted that he might not be as strong as he’d once thought. That was a blow to his pride, but he didn’t let it fester. Instead, once more, he put aside how he knew he’d be perceived and chose to prioritize his own mental health. About a month after Orlando began shopping him around, he got a boost when Columbus brought him back on Aug. 3 in exchange for $750,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and an international slot. He’s since played three games for Crew SC, made his first 2018 start for Columbus in their 1-1 draw at Chicago last Thursday and feels like he’s approaching full fitness ahead of the club’s home clash with New York City FC on Saturday (8 pm ET | TV & streaming info).

Meram celebrates with Artur after scoring a goal in last year's playoffs | USA Today Sports Images

“I learned a lot, honestly. I definitely challenged myself, I definitely mentally put myself in a challenging position to leave everything I knew and go to a place that I knew nobody or kind of was a fresh start,” said Meram, who, it should be noted, had plenty of complimentary things to say about Orlando City. “You make decisions on the field, off the field that are going to affect you. That maybe if I wouldn’t have left, I wouldn’t have grown from it. And sometimes it’s, how do I want to put this, sometimes it’s like a blessing in disguise. I needed to leave to realize how much greater things were or how great I had it, but I wouldn’t have known unless I challenged myself or took myself out of that safe environment. That makes you appreciate life even more.”

Meram knows how this all looks on the surface. He knows his initial trade demand to Crew SC seems misguided. He knows his time in Orlando was a disaster, and he takes some responsibility for it not working out. And he knows asking to be traded six months after getting the move he initially demanded isn’t a flattering look. He knows some will see him as misguided, selfish and perhaps weak.

But he’s not overly worried about that. He’s not doing this for any of us, after all. He’s doing this for his family, his friends and his own personal growth and happiness, both on and off the field. Orlando wasn’t the right fit and his time there was anything but easy, but Meram isn’t ashamed about his 2018. He’s just happy that he feels like he’s back on the right track.

“I knew what I wanted,” he said. “You can’t be ashamed of what people are going to say about you, how they’re going to perceive you now, or if they think that you gave up. For me, it was Justin Meram needs to be happy in his outside life, and if he can be happy it’s going to translate on the field. It was never an embarrassing thing of, ‘Oh, I’m just going to pick up and pack my stuff.’ It was more of, ‘Look, you see it’s not working, you see the signs, figure it out and put yourself in a position where you can get back to being successful.’ That’s how I saw it. I try to follow the writing on the wall and hopefully it’s a blessing. Right now, I’m really enjoying my life again and my teammates and the way we play here is obviously very exciting. Things are starting to slowly progress and now, myself, I just need to make an impact on the field.”

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