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Justin Meram a ‘different kind of player’ for Atlanta United attack

Meram could make his Five Stripes debut Sunday against Orlando City.

MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United made a surprise move hours before Major League Soccer’s primary transfer window closed this week. Out went $100,000 in General Allocation Money and a second-round draft pick. In came Justin Meram, from Columbus Crew SC.

Meram, who played college soccer at Michigan, joined Columbus in 2011. The Crew selected him with the 15th pick in that year’s MLS SuperDraft. The opportunity to acquire Meram arose in the last two weeks, and Atlanta did not execute this trade simply to fill an open roster spot. Ezequiel Barco is away with Argentina at the Under-20 World Cup. Héctor “Tito” Villalba and Josef Martínez likely will depart with Paraguay and Venezuela, respectively, for the Copa America in June. The Five Stripes expect Meram to make an immediate impact.

“I think he is a player who can contribute on different spots, of course, in our system: on the right, on the left, as a winger, a false winger, he can play,” manager Frank de Boer said Friday. “What I saw from the images, he can use both legs very well and gives assists, scores goals. For the upcoming period [six games in the next three weeks], and also we’re going to lose some players maybe with the South America cup, we need quality in that kind of position.”

“We can directly implement him into the roster,” de Boer added. “That’s always nice when you don’t have a player, maybe after a month you think, ‘OK, he can start now.’ I think he can start from the beginning.”

Meram has 39 goals and 37 assists in 223 MLS games, though he has not gotten on the score sheet this year. Atlanta is loaded with attacking talent, but Jeff Larentowicz believes his new teammate brings a new wrinkle to the team.

“He’s a different kind of player than what we have,” Larentowicz said. “I think we have a lot of different attacking pieces, but I don’t think there’s anyone that’s just like him.”

“As a player, he’s tricky,” Larentowicz continued. “His movement is tricky. He’s fast, but he’s not overly reliant on his speed. He’s very good one-v-one but also has a very good eye for making the final pass. So, he’s not going one-v-one to create his own shot all the time. It’s kind of three-dimensional where he can take you off the dribble, play the pass and get inside to take a shot.”

Larentowicz said whenever Atlanta played against Meram in the past, it always made the player a focal point of its defensive game plan, “and at times even the game plan didn’t neutralize his ability.”

Meram is an Iraq international and has earned 31 caps with his national team. He has scored four goals since his debut in 2014.

“[H]e has that experience from playing internationally, which is big,” Larentowicz said. “It’s playing in a region of the world that I think adds a little bit of character, for sure, and takes a kind of a true professional to go from playing in the United States — the luxury, the comfort of this country — to go playing in the Middle East. I think that’s valuable, for sure.”

Meram put up 13 goals and seven assists with Columbus in 2017, but the past two seasons have been more difficult. The Crew traded him to Orlando City SC before the 2018 season. It was a move that turned out to be a disaster. Meram scored one goal in 17 games for an abysmal Orlando team. At one point, he said fans were sending him death threats, before clarifying that they “wished death” upon him. Meram stepped away from the team, and Orlando traded him back to Columbus in July.

Some of Orlando City’s more vocal fans on social media have derided Meram’s move to Atlanta.

“They’re still holding onto something that they shouldn’t be, and I’ve moved on with my life,” Meram said after his first training session with the Five Stripes Thursday. “My time there was difficult, not only for myself but for others. I respect them and the people that treated me well, and for the most part, that’s what it was.”

The 30-year-old’s first opportunity for minutes with Atlanta comes this Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — against, yes, Orlando City. De Boer said Meram is ready to play.

Meram seemed comfortable and was quick to crack jokes in his first media session. He seems to fit the mold of a player who will be a good locker room guy, a characteristic so desired by Atlanta president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra. Meram complimented the quality and chemistry of his new team. He said he would “be crazy to pass up a chance to play for this club.”

“I’m speechless a little bit,” he gushed, looking around the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground. “This is unbelievable, from top to bottom. To see how hard everyone works — the way they took care of me when I got traded is really amazing. I hope in the future all MLS clubs have facilities like this, but I don’t see that happening very often.

“This is amazing what we have here, and I told some of the young kids, ‘When you see some other places, you’re spoiled right now.’ It’s great.”

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