After four straight wins, it is redundant to say that Orlando City is clicking in the 2018 Major League Soccer season. Some of the team’s most important players, such as Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan, and Yoshimar Yotún, are performing at a very high level and playing prominent roles in the Lions’ recent success, but one of most hyped off-season acquisitions is yet to find his best game.
Yes, we are talking about Justin Meram.
Acquired from Columbus Crew SC in exchange for over $1 million in allocation money, the 29-year-old winger hasn’t yet impacted Orlando City in the way most were expecting. After seven matches, he’s recorded only three assists and is far removed from the career year he had for the Crew in 2017, when he had 14 goals and eight assists while leading the team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
When the 2018 season kicked off, Meram was one of the few Orlando City stars available for selection. It looked like he was struggling to connect with his teammates at times during the first three matches, but some improvement was expected when players like Dwyer and Kljestan returned to help the team.
The second move made by Head Coach Jason Kreis to help Meram find his best game was putting him in his favored role on the left wing after he spent most of the first matches as a second forward. The Iraqi international didn’t take off and ended up benched the last two weeks, combining for only 56 minutes on the field against the Philadelphia Union and the San Jose Earthquakes, respectively.
The team is in the midst of a four-match winning streak now, but is benching Meram the best solution?
A first look at some of Meram’s stats over his early matches with Orlando City suggests he’s not struggling with the team’s system. According to WhoScored.com, his per-game averages in shots (2.9), dribbles (2), passes (28.9), key passes (1.6), and passing accuracy (78.2%) are all very similar to the ones he had for Columbus in 2017.
The issue with him right now is the pressure to do well. Meram knows he’s rightfully expected to be a star on this team and the fact that he’s not performing at the level he is supposed to is getting into his mind.
“Justin is a competitor,” Kreis said after Saturday’s match, when the winger recorded an assist but missed a penalty kick. “He comes here wanting so desperately to do well and he’s a proud person. He has had a lot of success in the past. Then, of course, he has some anxiety about wanting to do well and wanting to do well now.”
The solution to the problem is well-known within the club. Whenever Meram manages to play a good match and score a goal, his confidence will be back and the player the league used to see in Ohio in the last few seasons will return.
“Justin’s a threat whether it’s scoring goals or setting up goals,” Dwyer said post-match. “Once he can get this monkey off his back and get that first one, I think the floodgates will open for him. I think he’s a very, very talented player and there’s a lot more to come from him.”
However, to play well and score goals, Meram needs to be on the field. Kreis’ decision to bench him was totally reasonable considering Orlando City was struggling at the time, but things have changed.
Most of the team’s offensive pieces are delivering great numbers right now and the Lions can probably afford Meram’s inefficiency for a while until he is back on track. While the fact that the Lions have scored five total goals in their last two matches with Stefano Pinho playing on the left in the attacking midfield next to Kljestan and Chris Mueller is currently working against him, if Meram has limited time to prove himself, odds are the pressure to do well will continue to negatively impact his game.
For a player with his skill set, the effort should be worth it.