After joining Real Salt Lake ahead of the 2020 season, forward Justin Meram set out to achieve a new set of goals with his newest club and insert himself back into the fold of his national team. It took until 2021 to reach the latter and has now been selected by Iraq for its current round of World Cup qualifiers.
In 2020 Meram started 13 matches while making substitute appearances in nine others throughout an uncertain, shortened campaign due to the ongoing pandemic. Amidst the shakiness of the season, Meram recorded three goals and four assists for a club that finished near the bottom of the Western Conference. Now with one goal and two assists to his name in 2021, Meram shifts his focus temporarily to representing Iraq for its World Cup Qualifying journey.
“Playing for Iraq is a feeling that you can’t describe. To go back to a country where both of my parents were born and raised, to the culture that was instilled in me. When you have a chance 25 years later to represent your country, to have an entire nation watch you and cheer for you, it gives you goosebumps. Probably some of the best moments of my life, not just in football.”
Meram last represented Iraq for qualifiers in 2019 and would enjoy the opportunity to do so again this summer.
“We’re on top of our group in Asia right now so we need to finish these last three games in Bahrain strong and if we can do that it sets ourselves up to be in a really good position. The World Cup is definitely on our mind and it would bring a lot of joy to a country that has suffered a lot,” Meram explained earlier this year. “We’ve had some conversations, so we’ll see if my name is called in June to represent again in the qualifiers.”
After several weeks of impressive play with his club, including two assists and a goal, Iraq came calling. Once again, Meram will get the chance to help his country try and qualify for Iraq’s second FIFA World Cup and first since 1986.
And while qualification is of the utmost importance, Meram is still firmly focused on the remainder of the season with Real Salt Lake and achieving the goals set.
“You’ve seen in the past whenever RSL gets in the playoffs they’ve been pretty successful,” Meram reflected. “We just need to get this club back there.”
While there are many factors to having a successful season, defending Rio Tinto Stadium is always near the top of that list. The club has historically played well in Sandy and Meram prioritized getting back to that.
“We didn’t do a good enough job last year at home. As a group, we have to take care of our home games,” Meram said. “We really need to be putting opponents on their heels, especially when they come here because of our advantage with the altitude. I think that’s a realistic goal for this group.”
Even Meram’s personal goals for the season complement his vision for the club.
“For me personally, it’s how can I continue to create for this club, get goals, get assists. That’s something that I pride myself on because when I’m doing that it’s creating chances for other guys,” Meram explained.
As an 11-year veteran of MLS, Meram is no stranger to hard work and knows what it takes to succeed in MLS. An ever-changing landscape packed with conferences where all teams vie for a playoff spot during the regular season, Meram knows the league is a place where you have to stay atop your game in order to be successful.
“MLS is high tempo, a lot of up and down, a lot of high pressure. It’s very challenging on the body. This league today is a very competitive league with a lot of quality players. It’s not a retirement league like it was maybe portrayed to be 10 plus years ago. You have to come here and work."
According to Meram, putting in an individual's best work depends heavily on the work environment. With so many young players on the RSL roster, the veteran is doing what he can to create a sustainable environment. Meram recalls his experience when he first entered the league.
“I’m just putting my arm around them and really making them feel comfortable and helping them grow. That’s very crucial for young guys when they come into the league is to feel comfortable coming to work. I know for myself when I was young, I was a little intimidated by the veterans and not knowing what to expect,” Meram explained. Then when you get yelled at you kind of lose confidence so I’ve been making sure to connect with a lot of the young guys to make them feel good, make them laugh, loosen them up a little bit because this environment can be very difficult for a young player.”
“Especially those that come in as homegrowns that idolize this club and finally get their chance, those guys can get a little timid at times so it’s about bringing the most out of them and really letting them express themselves in a comfortable and confident way.”
That work environment that Meram is helping to create began in a small town at a community college in Arizona where he had to focus in on his goals in order to reach the heights he aspired to. Being in a small town at Yavapai College located in Prescott, Arizona, Meram was forced to focus on two things: soccer and school, similar to what the homegrown players at RSL experience within the pipeline of the Club.
“Yavapai College is the reason why I am here today. It gave me my dream, there’s no two ways about it. My journey came from being found in a park in Arizona, really just being given a chance,” Meram recalled. “Luckily it was a good two years there and I was able to get into the University of Michigan and then into the draft.”
From Arizona, to Michigan, several stops at MLS clubs and now to RSL, Meram now relishes and reflects upon the opportunities he’s been given and uses that to fuel him to contribute to his national team.
Meram and Iraq will face South Korea at Seoul World Cup Stadium at 5:00 a.m. MT on September 2 before facing Iran on September 7 in the Third Round of World Cup Qualifying.