The Moment: Why Justin Meram is the foundation and future of the Crew
A lot of heroes emerged from another wild week in Major League Soccer, one in which three games were won in the 90th or later, two more were decided in the final 20 minutes, and a bunch of stragglers -- Colorado, Philadelphia, New England, Chicago, and the LA Galaxy -- posted impressive, lopsided victories.
David Accam ran the Seattle Sounders' defense ragged in the Chicago Fire's romp. Shkelzen Gashi struck twice as the Rapids beat up San Jose. Latif Blessing stepped into Dom Dwyer's shoes and scored twice, the second a late equalizer, at Orlando City. Romain Alessandrini and Jelle Van Damme -- the latter back after last week's humiliating benching -- lifted LA.
Oh, and Tosaint Ricketts scored two winning goals, beating the Columbus Crew midweek in the last minute and striking late to nip Minnesota as TFC opened a six-point lead atop the Eastern Conference and Supporters' Shield tables with its fifth and sixth triumphs in 22 days.
But Justin Meram trumped everyone else, scoring a fine hat trick to carry the Crew to victory in Montreal (and provide a Mother's Day gift to his mom, who asked for a goal in a Crew-produced video). His stoppage-time winner provided the defining moment of a stirring week.
Meram, along with Trapp, is the core of the Crew going forward ... the likely successor to 32-year-old Higuain in the No. 10 spot.
Meram led the Crew to a 2-0 lead by the 28th minute, twice finishing balls that rebounded to him, but Montreal had much more of the ball, far more shots -- 24 to Columbus' 10 -- and rallied to tie with a pair of second-half goals.
It looked like the teams would share the points -- an arrangement that would have suited the Crew -- as the game went into five minutes of stoppage time. Just 40 seconds after the clock hit 90, Wil Trapp cut off Ignacio Piatti's ball into the Columbus box, and Hector Jimenez played it up the right flank for Niko Hansen.
THE BIG PICTURE
Meram's winner provides a vital boost for a Crew side that has teetered and tottered through its first dozen games, mostly tottering since toppling Portland, Orlando City and Toronto in successive home games. That was during a monthlong stretch Columbus (6-5-1) spent atop the Eastern standings. Three losses in four matches -- and just three points in a three-game homestand, twice surrendering late leads in defeat -- followed, leaving the club reeling as it headed into the most difficult span of its schedule, with five of six and 10 of 15 on the road.
So the first half-hour on Saturday night at Stade Saputo, with two bounces falling perfectly for Meram and, for the first time this season, a two-goal advantage in the first half, was a dream scenario. The Crew couldn't sustain it, not with debutant Blerim Dzemaili whipping up Montreal's attack. Soon it was 2-2, and it looked like another disappointment for a team that's endured too many.
Meram's goal, his third game-winner this year, is a huge push for a side that needed some confidence, and how it responds this weekend at New England -- with a three-games-in-nine-days span just ahead -- will be telling. The Crew, at its best, plays a mesmerizing brand of possession soccer, with Meram, Federico Higuain and Ola Kamara (and now Kekuta Manneh, finally fit enough to please Gregg Berhalter) driving a dynamic attack.
Columbus hasn't been able to bring that consistently, and transitional breakdowns in midfield -- giveaways and defensive lapses -- has been costly for a side that likes to play high and aggressive, and thus often leaves space behind. Columbus fell behind by the 22nd minute in six of its first nine games.
It's better in the middle when Trapp, one of the best young No. 6s in MLS, is paired with Artur, more adept at running the transition, rather than Mohammed Abu. Artur is back, wearing a soft cast after a broken wrist made him miss nearly all of four games. The Crew need to be tighter defensively, because its attack is always going to be difficult to stop.
Higuain's return to form after a difficult, injury-marred campaign last year, and Meram's continued growth have been critical, and Kamara has been sharp in front of goal. This trio has scored 17 of Columbus' 19 goals, with Meram getting an assist on one of the two they didn't finish. More production is needed from winger Ethan Finlay and backup striker Adam Jahn, who started in Kamara's place against Montreal. Manneh, who got his first Crew start on Saturday, will be a dangerous addition if he can approximate his form before last summer's foot injury stopped him cold.
There are expectations, mostly owing to Berhalter's philosophy and the skill he's amassed, that Columbus will contend for trophies this year, but it's no certainty.
WHY MERAM IS THE FUTURE OF THE CREW
Meram is critical to all that Columbus does, all that it will accomplish, and he's playing the best, most impactful soccer of his career. The 28-year-old winger/forward from Michigan has played a role in 11 of the 16 goals Columbus has scored from somewhere other than the penalty spot, finishing seven of them and assisting four more (three with wonderful passes).
One more goal, and Meram will equal his previous high, from his breakthrough season in 2014. He's been a consistent contributor since -- he was the club MVP last year, when he led Columbus with 13 assists -- but is only now evolving into a complete player.
He has good speed and size, can impose himself physically, can beat defenders on the dribble or with the pass, has a strong work ethic and forceful mentality, and he can finish. He has always had these attributes, but he's become a savvier player with more subtlety and intelligence in his play.
Meram, who plays internationally for his parents' native Iraq, credits Berhalter and his staff. He has improved markedly in his reading of the game, his ability to make the right decisions, his impact off the ball, and his contributions defensively. He relishes Berhalter's attacking style and is adept at finding space on the left, cutting inside to create or score, and with his precision, which he demonstrated so adroitly against the Impact. His finishing touch on all three goals was immaculate.
What's interesting is that, for a team that prizes possession and building from the back, so much of Meram's success this year has come from counterattacks. He's tallied five times on the break -- including, again, all three goals in Montreal -- and assisted Higuain and Kamara strikes.
Meram, along with Trapp, is the core of the Crew going forward. He signed a new three-year contract, with a TAM-level boost in pay, during the offseason, and his inventiveness with the ball pegs him as the likely successor to 32-year-old Higuain in the No. 10 spot.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.