Herriman • Justin Meram has worn the No. 9 for practically his entire career. With the exception of a short six-month stint with Atlanta United last year, the Michigan native and newest attacker for Real Salt Lake had the number that corresponded to his position: goal scorer.
When RSL signed Meram earlier this month and began training sessions, the No. 9 wasn’t yet claimed by any of the other players on the roster. The number was retired in 2011 when former striker and coach Jason Kreis’ name was immortalized at Rio Tinto Stadium. But last season, he asked the organization to undo that action.
Meram eventually became the beneficiary of that move by Kreis. But before he could accept it, he made sure to get Kreis’ blessing. Kreis coached Meram during his stint with Orlando City, so the forward had no problem reaching out to him out of respect to make sure wearing the No. 9 was OK.
Kreis said he was fine with it, but offered a message to go with his permission.
“He told me to score a lot of goals with it,” Meram said. “That’s what I’ll try and do for this club.”
Meram made his regular season debut in the 70th minute of RSL’s scoreless draw with Orlando City. He walked onto the field to a chorus of boos and chants of “F--- you Meram” from the crowd.
“It's sports,” Meram said of his reception at Exploria Stadium. “Players get booed all the time in different venues. That’s how it’s going to be.”
When Meram played for the Lions for part of 2018, he made comments about acrimonious treatment he received from fans, particularly on social media. He was traded to Columbus Crew soon after.
Meram represents part of an overhaul in the attack for RSL, which lost scorers and playmakers like Jefferson Savarino, Sebastian Saucedo, Joao Plata and Brooks Lennon in the offseason. While the organization picked up some young talent at that position to fill those voids, Meram is the only one officially signed by the club with that level of experience.
Forward Giuseppi Rossi is another such player. The former Manchester United and Italy national team member played towards the end of the season opener, and his minutes figure to increase this week as RSL readies for Saturday’s home opener vs. the New York Red Bulls.
Before coming to RSL, Meram played 259 total MLS games and started 189, including playoffs. He’s tallied 46 goals and 39 assists in his career, which spans nine seasons and three teams.
Those numbers could matter even more considering the situation RSL has with its attacking players. A bevy of players are either injured or not fit because they are just coming back from injury. The list includes Sam Johnson, Damir Kreilach, Corey Baird and Maikel Chang.
JUSTIN MERAM AT A GLANCE
Years of experience: 9
Best season: 2017 with Columbus Crew — 13 goals, seven assists
The team has such a dearth of attacking options right now that RSL coach Freddy Juarez played defender Aaron Herrera on the right wing all preseason. Meram might be counted on to be one of the team’s main playmakers while others get back to form.
Juarez said Meram’s experience was one of the reasons he felt he would be a good fit for the club. Meram’s experience veteran status also allows for less of a learning curve, Juarez said.
“It’s someone that wasn’t going to take the time to adapt,” Juarez said. “We thought with Justin Meram, [he] is a guy that can quickly just fit in as long as we just get him fit.”
Fitness might be the only thing holding Meram back. The organization acquired him a couple of weeks into preseason, so he’s really only had about four weeks of time with his new teammates and coaches.
But during that time, Juarez has put him to work. Aside from the Orlando game, Meram started all three official preseason games and played 90 minutes in two of them. He even finished a goal late in the loss to Phoenix Rising.
Meram is trying to get to his preferred level of fitness as quickly as possible, though. On a recent off day, he was at the training facility from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., staying longer than the equipment manager and team cooks, he said.
“I think I got in trouble for being here a little too long,” Meram said in jest, adding that all he really needs at this point is more minutes during games.
Juarez said Meram’s playing time during preseason wasn’t an indication of where he was leaning for one of the starting positions against Orlando. But the way he brought his attacking instincts to the team could cause Juarez to start him anyway.
“He’s not just a guy that can create for himself,” Juarez said. “He’s a good passer of the ball, he has good vision, he can create for teammates.”
Meram has bounced around the league in recent years, playing for Orlando, Atlanta and Columbus since 2017. He spent seven years with the Crew before all the moves.
Meram said he feels he has had just one tough stretch in his career. Other than that, all his stops have been positive and he’s been productive. The reason it didn’t work out with Atlanta United, he said, was due to contract negotiations. He added that the first time he left Columbus was at his request so he could “get a new adventure.”
Meram said he’s been welcomed into the rest of the team and it’s been easy for him to fit in. He’s living in a hotel at the moment, but will hopefully close on a house soon.
Meram was attracted to the team concept RSL brings and the way the team was built, he said.
“It’s always about the group and working hard,” Meram said. “Any time it’s a collective effort, you want to be part of it.”
At 31, Meram could be a the tail end of his career. It appears he would be just fine if it were to end in an RSL uniform.
“Hopefully I can stick here for a couple of years and possibly play out the rest of my career here,” Meram said.
RSL VS. N.Y. RED BULLS
At Rio Tinto Stadium
When • Saturday, noon.
TV • KMYU