Justin Meram

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Justin Meram discusses Crew’s hot form, facing Atlanta and more

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The Eastern Conference has established itself within the ranks of Major League Soccer given the quality of the sides at the top.

While Atlanta United — in its first MLS season — and Toronto FC dominate headlines, alongside New York City FC, lost in the shuffle is Columbus Crew SC.

[ MORE: Impact fire Mauro Biello after team loses nine of last 10 matches ]

The Crew finished fifth in a congested East after settling for a 2-2 draw on Decision Day against NYCFC, however, Greg Berhalter’s squad has been among the best in MLS for the second half of the season.

Pro Soccer Talk caught up with Crew midfielder Justin Meram ahead of his side’s first-round matchup against Atlanta in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“I wouldn’t say there’s less pressure on us,” Meram told PST. ” We might be written off in terms of the attention that they have had this season. Some networks have come out by saying that they [Atlanta] are the favorites, but nothing changes with this group.

“We let all that outside noise stay outside and we don’t let it affect us. Whether they have us winning a game, or whatever the case may be, we have a game plan and a style of play that we look to execute no matter where we go.”

Decision Day around MLS has created havoc — and a great narrative — but Sunday’s result against NYCFC proved to be the difference between potentially hosting a playoff game, or possibly having a bye, versus now having to travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Obviously that’s what makes Decision Day so much more exciting,” Meram said. “We didn’t control our own destiny, but the way things went with Atlanta and Chicago we could have jumped from fifth to second. It’s just one of those things that didn’t go our way.

“We didn’t play our best in the first half, but we also faced a really good team and I was pleased with how we bounced back. I think that showed our quality and our ability to claw back into games on the road, which is crucial during the playoffs.”

The Crew have been one of the league’s top home sides in 2017, winning 12 matches at MAPFRE Stadium — which ranks second in MLS behind only Toronto FC.

However, Meram and his side now face a stiff test against an Atlanta team that has lost just one of its eight matches since moving over from Bobby Dodd Stadium in mid-September.

“I need to be at my very best on Thursday,” Meram said. “We all need to be on top of our game because we need a collective effort in order to beat Atlanta.”

Scheduling has a funny way of factoring into the outcomes of matches at times, but given the fact that the Crew and Atlanta haven’t met since July 1 all bets are off in terms of which side is the  favorite to advance.

Atlanta won both matches earlier in the season as the two clubs met in home-and-home fixtures over a span of three weeks, but Meram remains confident that his side’s current form will help them prevail.

“Their attack is lethal,” Meram said when asked about facing an Atlanta side that scored 70 regular season goals. “One small little mistake allows them to pounce on chances. They punish you.

“We have to be clinical with our build up play and shape throughout the match. When we get our half-chances we need to bury them. When we played Atlanta the first time, we had a couple of breakaways that we didn’t put away and it hurt us.

“We have the quality, but playing at their home, with their fans, we need to focus on finishing our chances in order to advance.”

The topic of relocation has come as a shock not just in Columbus, but throughout MLS since last week’s announcement that owner Anthony Precourt would explore his options for the club moving forward.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Meram has insisted though that he and his Crew teammates remain focused on winning MLS Cup — which would be the club’s second in franchise history.

“Obviously we haven’t let it affect us,” Meram told PST. “We played a really good game on Sunday. We’re just staying with the same mindset that we’ve had the second half of the season, which doesn’t reflect the owner’s announcement.

“There’s not much I can say. I have a job to do. He [Precourt] has a job to do. The fans have their job to do. Right now, it’s about focusing on the playoffs and seeing what happens. There’s nothing definitive about staying or going, so I can’t speculate at this point.

“At the end of the day, I want a championship, and I believe that’s the feeling for all of our guys right now. That’s how it has to be from the player’s perspective because the second we shift our mindset we’re going to get punished by other sides.”

MLS (afternoon) roundup: TFC make it 6 in a row; Meram bags hat trick

Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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The 10th MLS Saturday of 2017 is nearly halfway complete. A quick roundup of the day’s early games…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Toronto FC 3-2 Minnesota United

Don’t look now, but TFC are sprinting away from the rest of the pack in the Eastern Conference. Saturday’s victory over Minnesota, a back-and-forth affair that saw the visitors twice come back to level terms, pushes Greg Vanney’s side to 25 points, six clear of everyone else in the East (TFC have played three more games than third-place Orlando City SC, who are on 18 points). The most impressive part: they’ve won six straight games, including five in a just-completed 15-day period that saw a number of key players rested at various points.

It was anything but pretty on Saturday, but the Reds will take all three points and a day or two of rest now, thank you very much. Sebastian Giovinco opened the scoring, from the penalty spot, in the 20th minute, a lead which they held until the 52nd minute, when Kevin Molino equalized for the Loons. Just two minutes later, though, Christian Ramirez bundled the ball into his own net for a 2-1 TFC lead.

Molino would pull Minnesota level once again, this time putting home the rebound from his own missed penalty kick, but Jozy Altidore, who replaced Giovinco in the 44th minute, would not be denied in his efforts to set up Tosaint Ricketts for the game-winning goal in the 77th minute.


Montreal Impact 2-3 Columbus Crew SC

Justin Meram is a star, and it’s time that everyone realizes and accepts it. After bagging his first career hat trick on Saturday, Meram’s 2017 numbers are as follows: seven goals and four assists, from 11 games. He’s just one away from a new career-high goals tally, and currently on pace to fall just short of his single-season high in assists (13).

Each and every one of the goals were pivotal, by the way, as the 28-year-old Iraqi international put Columbus 2-0 before the half-hour mark before bagging the game-winner in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. Defending — particularly on set pieces — remains a gigantic problem for Gregg Berhalter’s side, but they sit second in the East regardless.


Colorado Rapids 3-0 San Jose Earthquakes

On today’s edition of MLS Makes No Sense Whatsoever… we have Colorado, who haven’t won since the opening day of the season — who, in fact, have won just a single point in their seven games since opening day — crushing fifth-place San Jose, 3-0.

Shkelzen Gashi bagged himself a brace (29th and 56th minutes) either side of Dominique Badji’s goal in the 35th minute, and just like that Colorado are level with Philadelphia Union (for the time being) as the sides with the worst point totals (7 from 9 games) in MLS.

Tonight’s MLS schedule

D.C. United vs. Philadelphia Union — 7 p.m. ET
Orlando City SC vs. Sporting Kansas City — 7 p.m. ET
New England Revolution vs. Real Salt Lake — 7:30 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire vs. Seattle Sounders — 9 p.m. ET

Sunday’s MLS schedule

Portland Timbers vs. Atlanta United — 4 p.m. ET
New York Red Bulls vs. LA Galaxy — 6 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. New York City FC — 8 p.m. ET

MLS (afternoon) roundup: NYCFC top SJ; Schweinsteiger stars in debut

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune via AP
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The fourth (full — playing during international breaks should be banned) MLS Saturday of 2017 is nearly halfway complete. A quick roundup of the day’s early games…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

New York City FC 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes

David Villa continues to be the best, most skilled pure striker to ever ply his trade in MLS, and we’re so lucky to watch on a weekly basis. His first touch, which set up Jack Harrison for NYCFC’s opening goal against San Jose on Saturday, is something that doesn’t even exist in video games.

Villa then proceeded to pick up a secondary assist on Tommy McNamara’s 67th-minute game-winner, playing the first-time through ball to Ronald Matarrita, who crossed for a late-arriving McNamara. Easy finish for him, and NYCFC have their second win of the season and a three-game unbeaten run.

[ MORE: Sporting KC rookie got GOT by Vermes, teammates’ April Fools’ prank ]


Chicago Fire 2-2 Montreal Impact

Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s MLS career got off to a flying start on Saturday, as the 32-year-old World Cup winner marked his Chicago debut with a goal after 17 minutes (WATCH HERE). Schweinsteiger was largely the best player on the field over the course of his 90-minute shift, on two occasions playing inch-perfect through balls to create clear-cut scoring chances — one led directly to a red card — while missing out on a brace by a matter of inches.

Chicago went down to 10 men themselves, in the 71st minute, when Hernan Bernardello’s awful dive conned Ismail Elfath into showing Juninho a second yellow card. Matteo Mancosu had already headed Montreal back onto level terms 10 minutes earlier.

Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla put Montreal 2-1 ahead in the 90th minute, but Luis Solignac fired a bouncing shot past Evan Bush three minutes later to rescue a point for the home side.

[ MORE: San Diego’s April Fools’ prank — Footy McFooty Face ]


Columbus Crew SC 2-0 Orlando City SC

Columbus are top of the league (they’re also the only team to have played five games already this season), and Justin Meram has already decided he’s a (very early-season) MVP candidate in 2017 (three goals, two assists thus far). The Michigan-born Iraqi international bagged goals no. 2 and 3 of the season on Saturday, as Gregg Berhalter’s side cruised past Orlando in comfortable, convincing fashion.

With Meram, and Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain back to firing on all cylinders while playing behind Ola Kamara — and Kekuta Manneh set to arrive and bolster an already lethal counter-attacking corps — the only thing that can keep Columbus of the playoffs this season will be more of the shoddy defending that befell them in 2016.

MLS Snapshot: Chicago Fire 2-2 Columbus Crew (video)

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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The game in 102 words: Columbus’ playoff hopes were coughed up in a fit that included a lead thrown away by an own goal and losing track of Fire striker Michael de Leeuw in his wheelhouse. Adam Jahn had given Columbus a lead when the Fire allowed an awful giveaway to turn into a two-man, 80-yard drive to goal, and provided late hope when he maneuvered to smash a good-looking goal with 10 minutes to play. The Crew will go from the MLS Cup Final to missing the playoffs under Gregg Berhalter, while Chicago has shown some signs of life ahead of another likely first overall SuperDraft pick.

Three moments that mattered

13′ — Awful Chicago organization burned — This, this, is taking advantage of bad, bad decisions.

The Chicago Fire dribbled into trouble and then went Keystone Cops at the back end of a Columbus Crew counterattack, allowing Adam Jahn to net a first-half road goal on Thursday.

Justin Meram dribbled up the center of the pitch after picking off a miserable pass, then played Jahn through on goal through a pack of Fire defenders. Jahn didn’t miss.

57′ — De Leeuw to the dirty places — Michael de Leeuw isn’t afraid to stick his nose into the six, and the Fire man continues to show us how to poach with authority. Arturo Alvarez with the assist.

80′ — Jahn to the rescue — What a hit. Ultimately just a nice film clip, but what a hit.

Arturo Alvarez and Justin Meram were going to be Men of the Match before this one. Nice brace, Adam.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage | Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Jahn

Goalscorers: Jahn (13′, 80′), Parkhurst o.g. (55′), De Leeuw (57′)

MLS Snapshot: FC Dallas 1-1 Columbus Crew SC (video)

AP Photo/Ralph Lauer
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The game in 100 words (or less): Columbus Crew SC were 13 minutes from making me look like a prophet, but will leave Toyota Stadium, where they drew a high-flying FC Dallas side 1-1 on Saturday night, extremely happy having won their second point of the 2016 season (typo in the tweet, I know). Justin Meram put the visitors on top after nine minutes, but a load of misfortune saw FCD equalize inside the game’s final quarter-hour, as Tesho Akindele scored one of the head-shaking-est goals we’ll see all season. So how did Crew SC, a side who looked completely out of sorts through three games, come so close to knocking off a fellow MLS Cup contender? A few words: urgency, pace, cutting edge — three things they exhibited little or none of en route to two losses and a draw to open the season.

[ MORE: Sacramento to MLS? | Preview the rest of Week 4 ]

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Meram heads home from the corner for 1-0 — Federico Higuain serves them up like beach balls on set pieces, and Meram went up and got this one to give the visitors an early lead.

28′ — Meram blasts one right at Seitz, nearly bags his brace — Harrison Afful released Ethan Finlay down the right wing, and last year’s prolific assist man whipped in a cross from the end line that found Meram near the penalty spot. The only problem: as well as he struck the ball, he hit it right at Chris Seitz, who made the save.

77′ — Akindele hammers home a rebound off Clark’s back — Maximiliano Urruti unleashed a powerful strike from 20 yards out that clanged off the left-hand post of Steve Clark, hit the Crew SC goalkeeper on his back and sat on the ground two yards from the goal line.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Justin Meram

Goalscorers: Meram (9′), Akindele (77′)