It was Jan. 29, 2018 when news broke that Orlando City, a club already within the throes of a complete off-season attacking overhaul, had officially signed winger Justin Meram from the Columbus Crew in exchange for $750,000 ($300,000 in 2018 and $450,000 in 2019) in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), $300,000 in General Allocation Money (GAM), and a 2019 international roster slot to be returned to City in 2020.
At the time, the deal was met with massive applause and fanfare from all parties involved. Columbus, despite losing one of its strongest players and fan favorites, was happy with the amount that Orlando City was willing to dish out for Meram’s services. On the other side, Orlando City was ecstatic to sign a well-established MLS talent that could fill an attacking midfield role and take defenders on the dribble.
The supporters of the club were excited to have a new scoring threat, and Meram himself seemed to be exhilarated to have become a Lion. Orlando City General Manager Niki Budalic was also looking forward to seeing Meram contribute to the purple cause.
“Justin is the ideal fit to round out our attacking group. He’s a proven contributor in our league who can both score and create goals,” Lions General Manager Niki Budalic said. “His 1v1 ability and versatility to operate in various roles will add another dimension to our attack.”
Fast forward all the way to now and the Meram experiment landscape has shifted greatly. Just 17 matches later and the experiment was over. Meram was traded back to the Crew for $300,000 in 2018 Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), $450,000 in 2019 TAM, and a 2019 International roster spot — essentially Orlando got everything back except the $300,000 in GAM. As a Lion, he tallied a single goal and just three assists in MLS play and a U.S. Open Cup goal.
A pair of transactions for one player between two clubs just eight months apart is, to be frank, baffling. The Lions not only lost out on valuable resources, but also a player who was supposed to be a key cog in the attack for the 2018 campaign.
It leaves me asking questions. What went wrong? Where did things go so awry that Meram, typically a reserved and quiet player off the pitch, felt the need to speak out against the negativity and criticism directed towards him from the Lions’ supporters?
“What I’ve dealt with, death threats or, comments of – you know we have Mason [Stajduhar] here who just came over cancer – but comments of, ‘You know, you look like a cancer patient,’” Meram said, later clarifying fans wished death upon him but stopped short of threatening to take action. “These things … it’s so easy for these people to sit at home or on their phone or in the stands and make these comments about a player. But, you know, they want success.”
Despite the rabid criticism and disgusting invective hurled at the winger, Meram did his best to remain positive, even going so far as leaving social media for a period of time to focus on himself, the club, and his teammates.
“I think now, I saw a really good thing about LeBron James and it made me realize, if you can’t handle it, get off,” Meram said. “I shut it down for a bit and then I just realized what’s most important to me is this club at this moment. My teammates. The coaches. All the staff that work with me to keep me positive. My family and friends These difficult moments build character and really define a person through low moments and how they can get out. For me, that’s my challenge, my goal.”
Unfortunately, as well all know now, Meram was unable to conquer his challenges. His dissatisfaction with the way he was treated by the fan base only grew worse, highlighted by his now infamous celebration after opening his account as a Lion. After scoring against rival side Atlanta United FC, Meram approached The Wall, the spot in Orlando City Soccer Stadium where some of the staunchest supporters reside, closed his eyes, and put his fingers in his ears. It was a clear message to the supporters that he wasn’t listening to the haters anymore.
When asked later about the celebration, Meram didn’t hold back.
“When you hear comments like that from fans, now maybe they understand why I celebrated the way I did, because I can’t let that affect who I am and what I’m about as a person,” he said. “You go through these things and you try to do well and play well and work hard, but maybe they just…maybe because I’m Iraqi, maybe because I’m new to this club, maybe because I haven’t scored four goals, maybe because we’re losing…I don’t know. This is just a very difficult time for me. Sometimes you go places and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you go places and it’s a blessing. I can’t really tell you one pinpoint reason why my success isn’t there. This has probably been the hardest four months, maybe, of my life, my career,” Meram said.
While Meram couldn’t find success under former head coach Jason Kreis, he also didn’t find success under interim head coach Bobby Murphy, though Murphy was quick to jump to Meram’s defense.
“I think it’s unfair to have a go at Justin,” Murphy said. “You know, I don’t have Twitter or anything, but you hear the grumblings. Justin’s had some good moments for us. I think it’s hard to go from spending your career in one place and pack up and move and go somewhere else. You know, everybody thinks it’s just about stepping on the field. There’s huge life changes that go on.”
Meram, at that point in time, was unsure of his future in Orlando; even going so far as to state that his desire to play for the club would be at least partially contingent upon who was to be appointed as the new head coach.
“Depends on the coach,” Meram said. “I’ve had three coaches, with Bobby it would be a fourth coach, in my career. I think every coach is different. Last coach in Columbus was all about tactics. The coach before him was about freedom. Here, it was a bit of about freedom and expressing yourself. We’ll [see] what the next coach will be like.”
Shortly after the appointment of James O’Connor, it was clear to all parties involved that Meram’s services were, yet again, being negotiated with any interested clubs; FC Cincinnati, Vancouver, Portland, and the Crew were rumored to have been in the chase. After Meram’s final match with the Lions, a 4-1 shellacking at the hands of MLS newcomers Los Angeles FC — a match in which he had a game-tying assist overturned by video review — Meram wasn’t even spotted in training, and instead was training away from the club with former USMNT striker Eddie Johnson. He did make a return to training, albeit a short one as his trade was rapidly spiraling down the pipeline.
In hindsight, Meram was used to playing in a specific system: one where roles were clearly defined. This wasn’t the culture he encountered in Orlando, where the desire was for players to express themselves in a free-flowing manner. Had the winger been given more time to adjust, and perhaps had he suffered far less harsh criticism, he may have flourished as a Lion. But unfortunately the club’s management failed to take action in defending their off-season acquisition, or to get him to buy in to O’Connor, and it appears that Meram’s emotions got the best of him and the entire situation became too sour to salvage.