Former Roughrider Turns Good Fortune Into a Fine Career
By: Andrew Erickson
The Columbus Dispatch
Justin Meram chuckled for a moment earlier this week, acknowledging how crazy all of this is.
The 28-year-old midfielder is a little more than two months removed from signing a contract extension with Crew SC. With four goals and four assists through 11 games, Meram is a Best XI contender. He also is a focal point of a Crew team looking to re-establish its credibility after a disastrous 2016 season. For all of his recent successes, Meram has been noticeably more critical of himself, a product, he said, of not being satisfied.
“I’ve been here for seven years, but there’s no more of this ‘hug it out’ and ‘you’re young and growing,’ ” Meram said. “I’m not stopping, and if I stop, I’m shortchanging myself and this club.”
Meram isn’t about to stop, especially given where he has come from. The Justin Meram of 10 years ago had virtually no prospects in soccer. Today’s Justin Meram is still a bit bewildered by the path he took to professional soccer.
“I had an interesting, tough, weird journey to get to where I’m at,” he said.
In summer 2007, Meram was more or less done playing soccer. He graduated from Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township, Michigan, without soccer scholarship offers, and moved with his family to Arizona.
“The local schools in Michigan, the club coaches, the local teams, the (professional development) teams, nobody wanted me,” Meram said. “No one thought I had talent.”
But he missed soccer, and that was enough for him to join his brothers for a men’s league game at a park in Scottsdale, just hours after arriving in Phoenix. Wearing basketball shorts and Kelme turf shoes, he played well enough to catch the eye of Maurice Hughes.
Hughes, it turns out, was a Phoenix native who was home after a stint with the minor-league Atlanta Silverbacks. He also was a two-time national champion at Yavapai College, a community college in Prescott, Arizona.
Hughes was shocked to learn that Meram didn’t have a place to play, and he offered to put Meram in touch with Yavapai coach Mike Pantalione.
Meram said his backup plan at the time was to enroll at Arizona State, where he had been in touch with the football team’s special-teams coach and planned to walk on as a kicker. The sequence of events — how things fell into place to continue his soccer career — still gives Meram chills.
“What would I be doing with my life if Maurice Hughes wasn’t watching a friend, or if my brother (Jason) didn’t take Maurice Hughes’ number down?” Meram said. “He told me about a school called Yavapai. What is Yavapai?”
Hughes said he hadn’t spoken to Pantalione in a few years when he phoned the longtime coach on a Sunday afternoon.
“I just told him, ‘Hey, this is really random, and I know you probably already have your roster for next year, but I have this kid that I just encountered,’” Hughes recalled.
Pantalione bought Hughes’ endorsement. He bought Meram’s ability from the team’s first training session of the 2007 season, in which he put his team through six-a-side drills to get everyone a few touches on the ball.
“I remember it vividly. A number of players scored one or two goals in the two-hour session, and Justin had about a dozen,” Pantalione said.
Yavapai went 50-2 during the 2007 and ’08 seasons, winning two national titles. Meram set the school record with 132 points and sits No. 2 on the career goals list with 51. Meram primarily played forward, but every so often — Pantalione estimates about 20 percent of the time — he moved Meram out to the left wing to open things up inside the box.
“I was saying it in a joking fashion, but I said, ‘Hey, when you’re a pro someday, that’s where you’re going to play, so get out there,’” Pantalione said. “He would kind of just shake his head and eventually wander out there.”
Today, Pantalione laughs when he watches left wing Justin Meram play for Crew SC because he knows which moves are coming. He made clear that Meram’s success — just like that of Yavapai alumni Alan Gordon (Colorado Rapids) and Roger Espinoza (Sporting Kansas City) — was the player’s creation.
“All we did was open the door for him, and he took full advantage,” Pantalione said.
As Meram put it: “From no scholarships to too many.”
He chose Michigan over Ohio State, won a Big Ten title in Ann Arbor and has worked his way from reserve into the upper echelon of MLS over a span of more than six seasons. Meram is proud of the level he has reached, but he aspires to more. And he looks back to the park, to Hughes, to Pantalione, assistant Hugh Bell and Yavapai, with appreciation.
“It’s a fairy tale, there’s no question about it,” Hughes said. “Justin is still writing the story. That’s the awesome part.
Roughrider Soccer News Note: This story was released on Saturday morning. The following happened later that day:
After staging a remarkable second-half comeback, the Impact were undone by Justin Meram’s stunning hat-trick. Video
After staging a remarkable second-half comeback, the Impact were undone by Justin Meram’s stunning hat-trick.