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Orlando City winger Justin Meram speaks out about fan criticism, struggles on pitch

Orlando City Justin Meram (middle) receives a pass between Montreal Impact head coach Remi Garde (left) and Orlando City interim head coach Bobby Murphy (right) during the second half at Orlando City Stadium. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s been a rough season so far for Justin Meram.

He scored a career-high 13 goals in league play for the Columbus Crew last season. When Orlando City sent $1.05 million in allocation money to the Crew in exchange for Meram, he was expected to deliver some semblance of that production.

It hasn’t happened yet. He started off well enough – his game against D.C. United in Orlando City’s season opener remains a highlight – but has one MLS goal in 16 appearances (14 starts) for the Lions, who have lost seven consecutive matches in league play.

Fans on social media have turned their ire on Meram. And in some cases, according to Meram, it’s gotten ugly.

“What I’ve dealt with, death threats or, comments of – you know we have Mason [Stajduhar] here who just came over cancer – but comments of, ‘You know, you look like a cancer patient,’” Meram said, later clarifying fans wished death upon him but stopped short of threatening to take action.

“These things … it’s so easy for these people to sit at home or on their phone or in the stands and make these comments about a player. But, you know, they want success.”

When he started blocking the rudest naysayers, things got worse.

“I think now, I saw a really good thing about LeBron James and it made me realize, if you can’t handle it, get off,” Meram said. “I shut it down for a bit and then I just realized what’s most important to me is this club at this moment. My teammates. The coaches. All the staff that work with me to keep me positive. My family and friends.

“These difficult moments build character and really define a person through low moments and how they can get out. For me, that’s my challenge, my goal.”

After his lone goal of the season, a strike against rival Atlanta United on May 13, Meram went up to The Wall, where Orlando City’s staunchest supporters stand, and put his fingers in his ears.

“When you hear comments like that from fans, now maybe they understand why I celebrated the way I did, because I can’t let that affect who I am and what I’m about as a person,” he said.

“You go through these things and you try to do well and play well and work hard, but maybe they just …  maybe because I’m Iraqi, maybe because I’m new to this club, maybe because I haven’t scored four goals, maybe because we’re losing … I don’t know.

“This is just a very difficult time for me. Sometimes you go places and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you go places and it’s a blessing. I can’t really tell you one pinpoint reason why my success isn’t there.”

Orlando City’s attack has struggled. A few times, possession in the final third has ended with Meram being dispossessed. It’s also ended with failed crosses, shots that have sailed off frame, other players losing the ball or a back pass.

“Things aren’t coming off how they were for the past four years of my career,” Meram said. “So I can understand why fans, media, have this persona about me. Maybe you guys didn’t know how I played at my last club. It was OK to take risks. It was OK to lose the ball at times when trying to create. That’s what I’m trying to do here.

“It’s not coming off maybe the way I want. I’m not going to change the way I play … but for some reason, it seems that it comes back around on me, why we lose games sometimes, is what I feel.”

During most of the first half last weekend, Orlando City’s possession was in front of the compact Montreal Impact.

Meram said much of the criticism has zeroed in on him.

“I hear my name come out individually more than others, which is funny to me, but there’s nothing … I’ve been through a lot in my career so there’s nothing that’s going to stop me from doing what I do,” he said.

“Our attack starts with the defense, when they have the ball. I think, collectively, we’re either A) not moving enough for each other or B) we’re not comfortable playing through lines. We need to play quickly.

“I think when a team sits back and plays five in the back like Montreal did, how are you going to score goals if we keep possession in our own half? I think when people look on the outside and think the attack’s not scoring, I think A) the attack needs to move more, but B) the ball needs to circulate better.”

Meram compared the first half of the season to when he was passed up for an opportunity at a Division I school. He started his college career with Yavapai College in Arizona — he was discovered playing soccer in a park with his friends — and didn’t play at Michigan until his junior year.

“This has probably been the hardest four months, maybe, of my life, my career,” Meram said.

Meram spent the first seven years of his MLS career with the Crew. 

“I think, for me, I was coming from a place where roles were identified clearly, specifically and [there was] kind of a sense of you knew where everyone was at every time,” he said. “It was very organized. I could see how, when I’ve been involved with something like that for so many years, you are comfortable in a system. I was in one place for seven years. Now I’ve come here where the culture is very different for me.”

Interim coach Bobby Murphy on Tuesday came to Meram’s defense.

“I think it’s unfair to have a go at Justin,” Murphy said. “You know, I don’t have Twitter or anything, but you hear the grumblings. Justin’s had some good moments for us. I think it’s hard to go from spending your career in one place and pack up and move and go somewhere else.  You know, everybody thinks it’s just about stepping on the field. There’s huge life changes that go on.”

Getting a bit more passionate, Murphy continued, “It’s too easy in this world to turn on people so quickly. It that’s the mindset of people, for me, that’s hugely disappointing. No matter what their performances are, it’s not like they’re not putting in an effort, you know what I mean? Sometimes, things don’t come off.

“All of us in our daily lives go through stretches where things don’t go well for us. The only difference is these guys do it in front of 25,000 [fans] every night and everybody gets to have a go at them. If there’s things to be fixed, we’ll do our best to fix them and support these players. But also, everybody needs to take a step back and take a deep breath and look at the whole thing.”

Meram said the transition has been difficult, but ultimately, it’s up to him to right the ship.

“This is something new for me, being at a club – if they’re going to write me off after 15-16 games, then maybe they should look at themselves in the mirror as well and think if they worked at one job for seven years and switched to a new career, or a new place, how easy would that transition be?

“Life off the field, on the field. That’s on me.”

Plus, Orlando City is in the middle of a coaching search. Meram said the club hasn’t been as prepared tactically as it should be in “this day and age in MLS.”

The club’s next coach could change that.

“Depends on the coach,” Meram said. “I’ve had three coaches, with Bobby it would be a fourth coach, in my career. I think every coach is different. Last coach in Columbus was all about tactics. The coach before him was about freedom. Here, it was a bit of about freedom and expressing yourself. We’ll what the next coach will be like.”

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