Photo courtesy of University of Michigan
By AVI CREDITOR
Justin Meram hasn't been groomed by the United States Soccer youth program. Heck, he was only recruited out of high school by Bowling Green. To be a placekicker on the football team.
Yet now Meram, Michigan's prolific forward, is perhaps the most in-form college soccer player in the country, helping guide the Wolverines to the first Big Ten Tournament championship and College Cup in the program's 11-year history.
"My career has been an up-and-down path," Meram said.
Meram, 22, moved from Michigan out west to Arizona with his family prior to his senior year of high school. With no local schools offering Division I soccer and no other programs after his services, he considered trying to walk on to the Arizona State University football team as a kicker.
He was playing soccer in a park one day in Scottsdale when he was spotted by an alum of nearby Yavapai College, a junior college with one of the more reputable soccer programs in the country.
"He saw potential in me, and I said, 'You know what, I might as well give it a shot,'" Meram said.
He enrolled at Yavapai and registered 21 goals and nine assists in his freshman year, helping the Roughriders win the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship.
"That changed my life around for the better," Meram said. "I worked hard over there and started getting noticed."
His freshman season was nothing compared to what followed. He scored 30 goals and dished out 21 assists in his sophomore season, winning the NJCAA National Player of the Year award and a second national championship.
"People started believing, and I'm just happy that I grew into my skills and got faster and stronger," Meram said. "If it wasn't for Yavapai, I don't think I'd be playing soccer any more."
It didn't take long before Meram was on the NCAA soccer radar. Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, University of California-Irvine and San Diego all showed interest.
Naturally, Meram's decision came down to Michigan and Ohio State.
"We got stories back from the recruiting trail on how good he was doing," Michigan coach Steve Burns said. "We knew that his family was very comfortable with Michigan. (Wolverines assistant) Paul Snape refereed his youth games. We knew him real well. Probably one of the biggest factors was that he was comfortable with Michigan. We had this family feel and that we were going to look out for him."
In his two years as a Wolverine, Meram has cultivated his skills and become one of the more dangerous attacking players in the country. He can score with either foot, and his ability to go at – and typically blow by – defenders makes him lethal in open space.
"I tell his story at every camp we have," Burns said. "It's that classic story of the late bloomer. We knew he was a very technical player that had some savvy to his game, but the bigger, stronger, faster kids were able to run past him."
Meram's seven goals and six assists helped him earn All-Big Ten Second Team honors last year. He repeated that feat 16 goals and eight assists this season, getting overlooked for the first team in favor of Indiana's Will Bruin, Penn State's Corey Hertzog and heralded freshman teammate Soony Saad.
"At the beginning of the season I was coming in as a senior thinking, 'I need to score, I need to score,'" Meram said. "When you push it like that, it's not going to come. Now that I've changed that mentality, the goals are coming."
And how. Meram has earned recognition on a more widespread, national level for his latest scoring streak, which stands at eight games (11 goals in that time) and counting.
"He is one of those flashers and slicers out in space," Burns said. "His biggest strength is his ability to cut a ball and accelerate into space without losing one-sixteenth of a step. He's quick-footed, and he pulls defensive pressure toward him. He can really carve up teams and create for himself or create for someone else with a run in the box."
All this for a kid who could've ended up as the University of Michigan football team's kicker this year.
Meram played under coach Rich Rodriguez in the spring, was in the mix for the team's kicking duties and actually suited up for Michigan's season opener against Connecticut, getting the opportunity to run out of the tunnel in front of a crowd of 113,090 at The Big House.
When it became apparent that pulling off double duty wasn't going to cut it, he opted to stick with soccer; however, if he wanted to pursue a dream in the National Football League, he could return to school in 2011 and be eligible to play football.
"They were making jokes about me coming out next year, but I'm going to take my talents to the next level (in soccer)," Meram said. "I still love football. If it was different seasons I'd do both, but it was tough with the hours and training and games and travel and conflicts. It was a long shot to actually happen. If it could happen it would've been amazing, but you really can't perform at your best when you don't get your rest."
That word should come as music to MLS scouts' ears, as Meram, who was among the seniors invited to the MLS Combine, projects to be a high pick in next month's SuperDraft.
Burns pegs him as "a Dwayne de Rosario-type of player."
With a reference like that and an impressive resume growing by the game, Meram's days of flying under the radar are likely over.