The Yavapai Chance: Justin Meram's unlikely journey to the MLS

Jake Fromm/Daily
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Daily Sports Writer
Published January 17, 2011

Sitting in the crowd at Thursday’s MLS Superdraft were United States Youth National Team members, players groomed to be the next stars of American soccer. And then there was an athlete who four years ago had been recruited by just one college — to be a placekicker on its football team.

Justin Meram, the non-recruit turned star striker, went in the first round that day, ascending to the stage to put on the scarf of the Columbus Crew. Meram had achieved what 198 NCAA Division-I soccer coaches thought he could not do.

The journey of Justin Meram began in Shelby, Mich., where Meram was a four-year star for Eisenhower High School and was named First Team All-State and MAC Conference Player of the Year as a senior. But his success on the field didn’t translate to Division-I offers off it. His placekicking was the only thing that garnered him any attention, as Bowling Green showed interest.

But with no options in his most beloved sport, Meram stayed with his family as they moved to Arizona, unsure of his next move. Fate would decide his opportunity, as an alumnus of nearby Yavapai College, one of the top-soccer programs in junior college, saw the strong striker in a pick-up game at a Scottsdale park.

Yavapai coach Mike Pantalione got word that Meram had talent, so he gave the kid from the park a shot even though he had a full roster. Meram was 2,000 miles from home and a million miles from big-time college soccer, but at least he had a shot.

And he took full advantage, as he scored 51 goals and 30 assists in his two years and helped Yavapai win two National Championships. Meram earned NJCAA National Player of the Year in his sophomore season. He couldn’t get a look two years earlier, but Meram finally had the attention of NCAA soccer.

"People started believing,” Meram said. “I'm just happy that I grew into my skills and got faster and stronger. If it wasn't for Yavapai, I don't think I'd be playing soccer anymore."

Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, University of California-Irvine and San Diego all came calling to get the forward’s signature, but of course the Midwest product’s decision came down to two age-old rivals — the Wolverines and Buckeyes. Luckily for the Michigan, Meram decided to return to his home state.

Meram was a solid contributor for a mediocre 10-7-1 Wolverine side in 2009, tallying seven goals and six assists for a team that lost in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. But with star player Mauro Fuzetti moving on to the pros after being drafted by the Kansas City Wizards, it was Meram’s turn in his senior year to lead the team.

But Meram hadn’t only caught the attention of the soccer team. Michigan’s football team wanted his services as well. With then coach Rich Rodriguez looking for a new placekicker, Meram was tracked down, impressing the staff in spring practice well enough that he even suited up for the squad in their opening game against Connecticut last September.

Meram realized though that he couldn’t pull double duty with the soccer and football teams. So he made the same choice he had made two years earlier — to go with the round ball instead of the pigskin. Plus, if the soccer path didn’t work out, he could come back to the football team in 2011. Just in case.

“When I got to Michigan, the head coach, Steve Burns, believed in me,” Meram said. “The assistants Chris Grassie and Paul Snape believed in me. I knew I didn’t want to let them down and so I just came out this year with a new attitude and a new goal.”

What happened after that decision is now Michigan soccer lore. Bolstered by the addition of star freshman forward Soony Saad, the Wolverine's striker partnership led the team to its best season ever. Michigan went on a nine-game winning streak that won the team a Big Ten Tournament championship and led to a NCAA Tournament run all the way to soccer’s final four in Santa Barbara, Calif. The Wolverines lost to eventual champions Akron, 2-1, with Meram scoring Michigan's lone goal.

“We were having fun,” Meram said. “I had never been a part of a team where it was all clicking off the field and I think that’s what helped. The bench players weren’t disappointed that they weren’t playing. They were our motivators."

Meram was named the team’s offensive MVP this season, as he tallied 17 goals and eight assists. Having been in relative obscurity to the pros entering the season, he now had major heat coming in from MLS scouts. He was invited to the MLS Combine, and received the positive feedback that had him decide to travel to Baltimore and be in attendance for the draft.

But he wasn't alone that day, surrounded by his family that had taken him from uncountable soccer practices in Shelby and had supported him through his journey. In that family was a person with whom he shared no blood, but an unbreakable bond — Michigan head coach Steve Burns, who molded the junior college product into one of the nation’s best college players.

Meram, draped in a Michigan soccer scarf, sat through the first fourteen picks of the draft, waiting patiently for his name to be called. The San Jose Earthquakes were up to choose, but there was a trade — the Columbus Crew had traded for the pick, giving up established forward Steven Lenhart in the deal. The Crew selected Meram.

With his name called, Meram rose to embrace his entire own personal "crew," giving hugs that had been four years in the making. The last man he reached was Coach Burns, who Meram draped in his own Michigan scarf before embracing him. When he got to the stage, there was a new scarf — and a new opportunity — waiting for him.

“Columbus has a great fanbase, it’s close to Ann Arbor and it’s close to where my family lives,” Meram said. “When Columbus traded for the pick and put their belief in me, trusted in my ability, it means a lot. I want to come in, work extremely hard, and show them that they made the right choice.”

Meram is coming into a rebuilding Columbus side, and with some openings in its forward spots there is an opportunity to contribute immediately. The No. 15 overall draft pick has a clear objective:

“Rookie of the year. That’s my number one goal and that’s what I’m going to strive for day in and day out.”

After he proved the doubters wrong for years, it would be wise to finally believe in Justin Meram.