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Justin Meram relishes return to hostile Orlando City environment

“I knew it was going to be difficult being booed every time I got the ball,” Meram said. “This was a pressure I wanted to see if I could handle.”

Justin Meram dribbles during Atlanta United's 2-0 U.S. Open Cup semifinal win against Orlando City Tuesday, August 6, 2019, at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
Justin Meram dribbles during Atlanta United's 2-0 U.S. Open Cup semifinal win against Orlando City Tuesday, August 6, 2019, at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Fla. (Courtesy of Atlanta United)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Justin Meram learned something about himself during Atlanta United‘s 2-0 U.S. Open Cup semifinal triumph at Orlando City.

Meram spent a tumultuous half-season in Orlando last year. The team was terrible, and Meram’s form dropped off a cliff. His relationship with the fans quickly soured, and at one point, he told reporters he had received death threats. Meram later clarified by saying he thought the fans wished death upon him. The winger has been a target of their vitriol ever since.

Meram received a full stadium of boos when the PA announcer called his name in Atlanta’s starting lineup Tuesday, and the hostility continued every time he touched the ball. He knew what he was facing going into the game, but he did not know how he would react.

“I knew it was going to be difficult being booed every time I got the ball in warm-ups, but I showed tonight that I can block that out and play my game,” Meram said after the win. “This was a pressure I wanted to see if I could handle.

“They don’t know the whole truth. There’ll be moments where they realize from my side what I’ve been going through or what I went through when I was here, and I’ve kept quiet.”

Meram's chalkboard vs. Orlando City.

Meram’s chalkboard vs. Orlando City.

Meram handled the pressure. He played 66 minutes after going 90 Saturday. Meram tormented Orlando’s back line with runs down the left flank and slick cuts into the middle of the pitch. His passing set teammates up in dangerous positions, and two of his passes led directly to shots. Meram was game to take defenders on one-v-on and completed three of six dribbles. Defensively, he added three interceptions, three recoveries and succeeded on his only attempted tackle of the night.

The performance was vital. With Josef Martínez out to due a strained adductor sustained during Friday’s training session, Atlanta needed others to step up in the attack.

“We’re missing our star, our goal scorer,” Meram said. “I put it upon myself to make more runs, create more chances, and I think a lot of us put that on ourselves, the attacking players. And you saw we created some really good chances and we could have been up quite a few goals at halftime.”

The one flaw in Meram’s night came on an Atlanta corner kick in the second minute. Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez found the Iraq international at the near post for a free header in front of Orlando’s frothing supporters’ section, but Meram sent his effort over the bar. “That would have been nice if that would have gone in early,” he said.

Eric Remedi, who scored Atlanta’s winning goal in the first half, had praise for his teammate’s quality and mentality.

“Justin is a guy who plays with intensity,” Remedi said through an interpreter. “He’s a very technical player. It’s not easy to come into a place where every time you touch the ball you get booed. He proved tonight that those types of situations don’t phase him too much. He showed how good he can play even in a terrible situation like that.”

This was Meram’s first game in Orlando since his short stint with the Lions. A writer looking for poetic angles could not help but see the game as a turning of the page. Meram didn’t know if he would pass the test, but he did, and that ended the story. Meram does not see it that way.

“It’s been turned, because I’m loving life in Atlanta and I’m seeing myself back to the level that I should have been playing at, and I’m happy about it,” he said. “I get confidence from the group. It was a rough year for me. Every player, every athlete has moments in their career, and this move kind of helped me get back to the way I used to be playing over the years. That for me is gratifying, but it wouldn’t be possible without the guys in the locker room who lift me up and really helped me make this transition so easy.”

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