ATLANTA — Justin Meram picked a good time to score his first goals for Atlanta United.
Atlanta’s attack struggled to wake up in the first half-hour against the Montreal Impact Saturday night. Meram played a nice cross to Julian Gressel in the fourth minute, but Gressel’s first-time shot was well wide. Florentin Pogba got his head on a free kick in the sixth, but fighting traffic, he redirected the ball over Montreal’s goal. Darlington Nagbe created space to shoot from distance with a good dribbling move on 31 minutes, but like Gressel and Pogba, he could not hit the target.
JUSTIN. MERAM. EVERYBODY. 🚀
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) June 29, 2019
Aside from the aforementioned half-chances, the Five Stripes did not seem to have an answer for the Impact’s deep, compact defense. Fans and media were grumbling, and then Meram struck with a lightning bolt out of nowhere. His curling shot from 25 yards brought Mercedes-Benz Stadium to life. The goal was Atlanta’s first shot on target.
“You can’t pass around them all the time,” Jeff Larentowicz said after the game. “Sometimes you need to take a shot. The possession’s going to be so high that you’re probably going to get more opportunities, so in one or two possessions, if you decide to shoot [from distance], I don’t think it’s the worst thing. He has the talent and the ability to score from there, so it’s not like you’re just pulling the trigger. I think you’re cutting in, you’re doing something and you’re making a play that you know you can make.”
Montreal equalized in the 50th minute, but Meram added his second goal off a corner in the 83rd to secure Atlanta’s 2-1 win.
The Five Stripes acquired Meram from the Columbus Crew in May. At the time, manager Frank de Boer said Atlanta was getting a player who could step in and produce right away. Meram was meant to be a quality depth piece that would leave Atlanta in good shape should injuries strike or the need for squad rotation arise.
Against Montreal, Héctor “Tito” Villalba and Ezequiel Barco were unavailable due to knee injuries. Dion Pereira had played 77 minutes three days prior in Toronto. Josef Martínez still had not returned from international duty. De Boer needed someone to step up, and Meram delivered.
“He’s practicing, and he was really determined to show himself for the public and for the fans because he wants to be important,” de Boer told reporters. “He already said before the game, ‘I can make an impact.’ He wanted to show it, and he showed it.”
“It’s great for him, it’s great for me, it’s great for the fans, it’s great for the club, great for his teammates. So, really pleased with his performance today.”
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) June 30, 2019
After his first goal, Meram raced to the corner flag and planted, facing the crowd with his arms outstretched. He was mobbed by his colleagues.
“It was just a relief,” Meram said of the celebration. “It’s always tough when you get traded in the middle of the season, but these guys in the locker room have really brought me in, and I really love coming every day to work with these guys. When you enjoy it and when this locker room is great, it just feels on a different level to help.”
Will Pity start when everyone is available?
Considering Atlanta’s attacking absences in recent weeks, there has been no question of Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez’s place in the starting 11. On Saturday, de Boer pulled Pity Martínez from the game in the 68th minute because the Argentine was making too many mistakes that were “a danger for the team.”
“So, then it’s my choice to make a decision,” he said.
In his postgame press conference, de Boer was asked for the first time this year whether he might drop El Pity to the bench. The manager did not give a direct answer and defended his player, but acknowledged that Pity Martínez needs to show more.
“I still believe in him,” de Boer said, “but he has to improve in that, that’s for sure.”
Josef Martínez is expected to be available for Atlanta’s next game at the Chicago Fire on Wednesday, and de Boer is hoping to have Barco and Villalba back within the next two weeks. The offensive end of Atlanta’s roster is about to get crowded, and there is not room in the starting XI for everyone.
De Boer soon will have another decision to make.
Big Flo takes opportunity ‘with both hands’
Florentin “Big Flo” Pogba was a surprise starter at left back against Montreal. Pogba has appeared at centerback for Atlanta this year, but de Boer inserted him on the outside to strengthen the Five Stripes’ defense after a bad performance against Toronto on Wednesday. The manager cited Michael Parkhurst’s age and the fact that the captain played 90 minutes against Toronto as reason for the change.
“For me, Flo, I think he put himself in the team because of his positive attitude,” de Boer said. “For example, he asked me if he could play one half-week ago with [Atlanta United 2] for 90 minutes — and away, and his two brothers were here. But he really wanted to go.
“I like that from a guy. And when you also show quality … there comes a time when you have to give him the opportunity, and I think he took it with both hands.”
Pogba ran out of gas as the second half wore on and exited for Brek Shea in the 83rd minute, but he likely showed de Boer enough to warrant more consideration for playing time at left back. Pogba finished the night with two interceptions and five recoveries.