Meram makes a smooth transition
Veteran MLS winger, now in fourth trade of his career, makes an immediate impact with Charlotte; Plus: Rookie Brandon Cambridge's two-goal splash, ACL scare for Gaines, and preview of Nashville
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Veteran Justin Meram quickly gets comfortable with Charlotte FC after arriving last month; shows respect to Atlanta after 2 crucial goals
Justin Meram slams on the celebratory breaks after a goal in Atlanta last Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
Justin Meram’s first (and second) goals with Charlotte FC will always be remembered for the celebrating he didn’t do. The veteran winger paid homage to the 2019 season he spent in Atlanta last Saturday by slamming on the brakes, folding his hands in front of him and standing like a rock while a wave of teammates rolled over him.
He explained briefly after Charlotte’s 3-1 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — and at length in a conversation with The Ledger this week — that he felt particularly indebted to Atlanta after his professional life had been turned upside down with his third trade in less than a year and a half. This came after he had spent his first eight MLS seasons with the Columbus Crew.
“My career was in limbo and could have possibly been the end in 2019,” said Meram, now 34. “It was sink or swim, and I think that organization helped keep me afloat. Really. I feel that I’m still playing today because of my time in Atlanta, and the success I had with that club.”
Charlotte FC might owe its rival Atlanta a debt of gratitude, too. Because what Meram learned during the transition he made then — taking confidence in respect he got from Atlanta staff, players and fans — helped him adjust quickly in Charlotte. He’s just three weeks into the trade that brought him from Real Salt Lake, and already he’s become a vital part of the team’s success.
Meram has produced in each of the three league games he’s started — all wins — assisting an Enzo Copetti goal on a corner kick against NYCFC, scoring two goals against Atlanta, and splitting a defender’s legs to find Brandon Cambridge for the tying goal of a 2-1 win Wednesday night against Chicago.
“Strikers are intelligent and cheeky,” Charlotte FC coach Christian Lattanzio said. “If they think they can get the service, they will go. If they don’t, they go once, but maybe the second or third time they don’t go. If you have a guy like Justin (Meram) or Ashley (Westwood), you know the ball is coming. They need to have the trust that not only the ball is coming, but it’s coming well. Ashley is a leader in that sense, and Justin is a technical leader as well.”
It’s not that being traded has gotten any easier for Meram now that he’s in his mid-30s. If anything, it’s gotten more complicated. Meram had to get on a plane for Charlotte the day of his 2-year-old son Sebastian’s birthday. He left behind his wife, Maxine, who is pregnant and due in September, along with their 7-month old daughter and Sebastian. Meram hadn’t seen Maxine in almost three weeks when she arrived in Charlotte on Monday, along with the movers and their belongings. After getting their children’s rooms settled, she was planning to fly back to Salt Lake and bring their children back with her on Monday.
Maxine and Justin Meram stop for a smile before the Chicago Fire game Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
“Those are just the sacrifices we’ve got to do,” Meram said. “That side of it was difficult. On the soccer side, it’s been a pretty smooth transition. Charlotte’s been wonderful. The staff has been wonderful to me.”
The benefit of being around MLS for 13 years is that he knows a lot of people, including a handful on staff in Charlotte. Meram played against assistant coach Pa-Modou Kah in MLS, shared a training room with medical staffers Jon MacGregor and Tyler Knight, and knew Technical Director Bobby Belair and equipment manager Paul Dillon from his time in Atlanta. He also played with fullback Harrison Afful in Columbus.
When it came to getting to know the rest of his new teammates, Meram said he relied on his sense of humor — whether it was joking with teammates or laughing at himself. He had to after he made the mistake of asking George Marks — who was Charlotte’s starting goalkeeper against D.C. United — if he would be making the trip to Washington.
On the field, Meram took nothing for granted. He set out to earn respect, not just expect it. He showed how quickly he got it when he connected with Copetti for a goal and then a celebratory peck on the cheek. Copetti told reporters afterward that Meram made a big impression on him because he could speak some Spanish — something Meram says he worked on in Atlanta because so many of his new teammates there spoke it.
“The New York City game was a big moment for me within the group,” Meram said. “I think these guys see that I want to work and be there for them. Gaining trust from the veterans and the new guys is vital. You’ve got to do all the right things to let them know you’re here to be influential. That’s my job. I’ve got to be influential, whether it’s with the ball, without the ball, on the field or off.”
Meram also credits Lattanzio for making him feel comfortable the first day he arrived in Charlotte. He was moved by something Lattanzio said to him when he told Lattanzio his infant daughter’s name is Charlotte. (It was a name his wife Maxine says she’s always loved, as in Princess Charlotte.)
Meram said Lattanzio, who is Italian, brought up the Latin phrase “Nomen est omen,” which means “the name is a sign,” or “there’s destiny in the name.” (My late Latin teacher, Mrs. Cobb, would be so proud of me for writing about a Latin phrase. Bless her.)
“It’s something I'll never forget,” he said. “It just hits home. It's just crazy how life works, and here we are.”
Coming out party for Cambridge: rookie scores two goals
Meram doing his part to introduce Cambridge to the fans, which he did after scoring his first two MLS goals to tie and win Wednesday’s game over Chicago (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
Just when it looked like Charlotte FC was in dire straits at winger — with Kamil Jozwiak, McKinze Gaines and Kerwin Vargas all injured — and both Andre Shinyashiki and Nuno Santos out of the picture over legal issues, Brandon Cambridge burst onto the scene.
The 21-year-old rookie, who started the season with the “minor league” Crown Legacy FC, came off the bench Wednesday night and turned the game against Chicago Fire on its ear.
In a span of 22 minutes, Cambridge scored two goals: first the game-tying goal on a left-footed chip to the far post to tie the game 1-1, and the second for the go-ahead score on skimmer to the far post. This was a guy who had played only 18 minutes combined in four MLS games off the bench before Wednesday.
If it looked like he was on a mission, it’s because he was: for redemption. Cambridge got a great scoring opportunity in mop-up duty in the final minutes of last weekend’s 3-1 win in Atlanta on a pass in stride from Karol Swiderski. He sailed a shot wide and put his hands to his face in disbelief.
“I knew coming into this game if I got the chance, I was going to rifle it in,” Cambridge said Wednesday night.
This action was no mop-up duty, either. Lattanzio had started fullback Jaylin Lindsey at right wing, wanting to keep Swiderski positioned inside, where he’s at his most dangerous. So Lattanzio admittedly asked a lot of Lindsey, giving him a much bigger offensive load to go along with his defensive responsibilities, and saw it starting to wear on him by the 60th minute.
Lattanzio made Cambridge his first substitute, and within nine minutes, the rookie had answered with his first MLS goal.
Cambridge’s guttural celebration of his first MLS goal. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
“You dream of that moment as a kid,” Cambridge said. “You’re always practicing those celebrations in your bathroom or your room, but when it happens all those go out the window.”
What came out was a primal scream and an a frenzied run toward the fans, forcing his teammates into a high speed chase just to keep up.
Cambridge joined this organization in December when Charlotte FC traded Vancouver $50,000 in general allocation money (GAM) for its academy product. A standout at the University of Portland, Cambridge got lost in the shuffle of the MLS Super Draft that day, when Charlotte chose four players, including Hamady Diop from Clemson with the No. 1 overall pick.
Cambridge had no problem standing out with Crown Legacy FC, though. He scored three goals in his first two games with the new Next Pro team. He was called up to Charlotte’s first team and played 13 minutes in his debut against Real Salt Lake. He saw 54 minutes of action in Charlotte’s first US Open Cup game against South Georgia Tormenta, collecting an assist, before leaving the game on a red card.
“I always knew that I could play here,” he said. “I think the biggest thing for me was just being patient and waiting for the opportunity.”
With the one he got Wednesday, Cambridge became just the fourth player in MLS history to scored game-tying and game-winning goals within his first four MLS appearances. (The last was Zlatan Ibrahimovic of LAFC on March 31, 2018.)
Gaines scare: winger feared ACL tear
When winger McKinze Gaines went down clutching his left knee on the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last Saturday, it didn’t look good. But after a few minutes, Gaines was able to return to action and played the final 10 minutes of the game.
“If you could bottle up adrenaline and sell it, you’d be a billionaire because it got me through the game,” Gaines said. “Afterwards, I was also fine. But as soon as we stepped off the plane (in Charlotte), I thought ‘Something is wrong.’ It swelled up and got to the point where I couldn’t straighten it.”
Gaines said he underwent an MRI, and it showed there wasn’t any ligament damage. That came as a relief, because he had feared there might be a tear in his anterior cruciate ligament, which would require season-ending surgery. Gaines said the MRI revealed meniscus tears in two places and a bone bruise, but it was not expected to require surgery.
“It was kind of a bummer, but I also dodged a bullet,” Gaines said. “I think I’m looking at just three or four weeks (out), and then I’ll be back.”
Up Next: Charlotte FC (5-5-3) vs. Nashville SC (6-3-4)
When/Where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte.
How to watch: MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. For information on how to sign up, click here.
How to listen: WFNZ 92.7 FM in English. WOLS 106.1 FM in Spanish.
These are two hot teams, with Charlotte winning six of its past seven games (including two in the U.S. Open Cup) including a club-record four straight. Nashville is unbeaten in its past seven matches (five wins and two draws) though only one of those games was on the road.
Nashville, which is ranked third in the Eastern Conference, is 5-1-2 at home this season but just 1-2-2 on the road. Charlotte defeated Nashville 4-1 at Bank of America Stadium last July in their only previous meeting.
Charlotte is in a tough stretch where it has played five games in 15 days, including one U.S. Open Cup game. The team will have played nine games in a span of four weeks by the time it gets to June 3. The team is doing so with a roster depleted by the loss of Shinyashiki and Santos and a rash of injuries.
Carroll Walton is a longtime baseball writer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution now cutting her teeth on soccer and the Charlotte FC just as fans in Charlotte do. She would love to hear from you. E-mail her with questions, suggestions, story ideas and comments!
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