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Justin Meram in Line for Major Improvement

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The Mesopotamian Lion needs some help up front to be at his best.

MLS: D.C. United at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an up-and-down start to the beginning of Justin Meram’s Orlando City career. In his debut against D.C. United, he dazzled everyone in Orlando City Stadium with his skill on the ball by turning right back Nick DeLeon inside out and getting to the end line whenever he wanted. He created four chances on the night — which doesn’t include springing Jonathan Spector loose for the assist of the tying goal in stoppage time — to lead the team, completed his passes at an 84.4% clip, and popped up everywhere D.C. didn’t want him to, causing problems with his fancy footwork.

But Meram hasn’t quite looked the same in either of the Lions’ games since then. He has created just one key pass over the other two matches and posted sub-par passing percentages, including a lowly 53.3% in the loss at Yankee Stadium. As Orlando’s only available veteran option up top, it’s easy to see why the offense is struggling.

The Iraqi international forward has been asked to play as a striker in each of the first three matches of the season by Head Coach Jason Kreis. And even though Meram came into the league as a center forward, Gregg Berhalter molded him into the dynamic winger he is today and those traces of being an out-and-out striker are seemingly long gone. But when the only available options for Kreis are Meram and rookie forward Chris Mueller, you have to make do.

It’s asking a lot of the veteran to be the volume scorer for the time being, especially when his partner in crime up top is learning on the job. Not to mention that, until last Saturday, the midfield has had stand-ins at the tip of the diamond. But the Lions didn’t pay $1.05 million in allocation money for Meram not to be an impact player in some facet. So, when the offense needs to lean on someone, Justin is the obvious candidate. But his need for help is clear and no one else in Orlando may be happier to see strikers Dom Dwyer or Stéfano Pinho back on the pitch than Meram.

You can still see the clear traces of winger in Meram’s game. Even when asked to play centrally, he often finds himself waiting for the ball wide left of the penalty box. His heat maps over the first three weeks speak for themselves:

Meram vs. D.C. United
Meram vs. Minnesota United
Meram vs. NYCFC

Those certainly look more like the touches of a winger and not a center forward.

To compound problems, Meram has put just two shots on target in three matches and neither of them were particularly threatening. While he does incredibly well to get around defenders, he hasn’t been able to do anything with the ball when he gets into dangerous areas. Part of that is because Meram has never needed to be a go-to scorer in MLS, bagging more than six goals in a year just twice in his career. The other part is that he has no help, no one to take the pressure off when three defenders swarm to him, and no one to get on the end of one of his many crosses into the box.

Sacha Kljestan will do his best to alleviate some of those issues, providing another creative outlet. Meram won’t have to drop as deep to receive the ball and can focus more on getting on the end of chances and less on being the center of the offense. Josué Colmán provides a similar threat to Justin on the opposite wing, able to draw several defenders in with his skill on the ball and create gaps to exploit.

But while that trio has technical ability and creativity in abundance, none of them are known for putting the ball in the back of the net on a regular basis. None of them will be forcing center backs to check over their shoulders for someone lurking in the 18-yard-box. Meram, Kljestan, and Colmán will create plenty of space but someone has to be there to do something with that space.

Those fortunes should change quickly, though. Kreis believes that Dwyer, who has been held out with a quad injury, should be available for selection next week against the New York Red Bulls and no one should be happier to hear that than Justin Meram. Dom doesn’t have to come in and score loads of goals to save the offense, he just has to let his teammates do what they do best and goals will come naturally after that.

When Meram naturally drifts left, defenders won’t be able to follow him so tightly for fear of losing sight of Dwyer. They also won’t be able to commit as many numbers to walling off the left when a quick switch to Colmán presents potentially more difficulties. Having the offensive pieces back in the fold keeps defenders honest. Minnesota United and New York City FC have had success taking one or two players out of the game, but four is a tough task for even the best MLS defenses.

With a dangerous veteran striker finally available, it will be interesting to see how Kreis chooses to field his team. In the loss to Minnesota, Meram played next to a healthy Pinho in the diamond. But regardless of where he has been posted in the lineup graphics, he ends up in the same space. With Meram, Kljestan, and Dwyer, the diamond could still be a possibility. But add in the availability of the technical attacking midfielder that is Colmán and it becomes difficult to fit the foursome into the diamond. Perhaps Meram will be given the freedom to focus on what he does best for his new team: terrify fullbacks on the left wing.