"Like he never left": Justin Meram makes game-winning return to Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio—In his first start at MAPFRE Stadium since returning to Columbus Crew SC from a six-month stint with Orlando City SC, winger Justin Meram scored the game-winner for his new-old club in a crucial battle near the top of the Eastern Conference. Of course he did.

“When he came back the first day of training, it was like he never left,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter, after their 2-1 victory over New York City FC Saturday.

“Justin has a strong connection with this club. He has a strong connection with this staff, with the players. It was almost like the prodigal son is returning.”

Meram’s 63rd-minute winner was his first goal since May, and only his second on the season. It was his first goal for Columbus since last September. And while Berhalter said he didn’t think it was an emotional moment because of Meram’s familiarity with the club, the winger conceded that it meant more than a typical goal.

“For me,” Meram said, “I’m not going to lie – it was a relief.

“Everyone here – all of you guys [in the media], the players, the city – has welcomed me back. It’s nice to see, and I’m just glad I could help do this for the city of Columbus.”

Captain Wil Trapp saw that emotion clearly, and joked that Meram “probably did about six laps around the stadium high-fiving every single person.”

But Trapp, too, sees a difference in Columbus with Meram on the field.

“In the pockets, you can see he’s just more comfortable here – turning, running at guys, combining,” Trapp said. “I thought he was really good. … He brings quality; he brings dynamism; he brings that crafty element that’s an X-factor for guys in our attack.”

Meram was thrilled by the goal, but said he has more to offer for Crew SC. And his priority, he said, is on getting results.

“It’s not just the goal, but overall the effort – playing with the guys, creating chances,” he said. “That’s what I pride myself on doing – being dangerous offensively, defensively making plays.

“The goal is the icing on the cake. Getting the win against this team is what we wanted, and that’s what we did.”

Even Berhalter, known for pounding the refrain that every game matters the same, admitted that in a race for third place in the East, Saturday night’s win could prove a huge three points.

“We framed this game as a potential battle for third,” he said. “We know we still have work to do, but this was an important step.”