sports 4 days ago

Crew Cuts: Break came at good time for banged up Meram

The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio — Andrew Erickson The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

July 17--When Crew SC takes the field Saturday against the Philadelphia Union, 18 days will have passed from its 1-0 win at Minnesota United.

A long break has been good news for Crew midfielder Justin Meram, who has been been able to rehab a sore left ankle that in a compact stretch of games could have forced him to sit out a game or two.

On Saturday, Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said Meram was a full participant in training. A day later, Meram said he again participated in a good portion of training before moving on to conditioning drills with Niko Hansen (hernia surgery) toward the end of practice.

Meram said "we'll see" with respect to a Monday friendly against Eintracht Frankfurt but is confident he'll be ready to play by Saturday, adding "brighter days are coming." That's a significant improvement over his last couple appearances, in which ankle pain made it uncomfortable for him to run.

The injury first occurred when Meram took a shot in the 13th minute of a 2-0 loss to Atlanta United on July 1 and tweaked his ankle. He managed to grind through 68 minutes before coming out. He looked sharp three days later in a 1-0 win over Minnesota, creating several chances in 27 minutes off the bench, but didn't feel great.

"Tried to play through it. It was tough. Minnesota was so much pain I could barely even train," Meram said. "Team walk was tough for me but they needed me and I actually performed pretty well on a beat down ankle. I didn't know how much I could play. It was just a matter of, 'We need you, we're low on bodies.' I thought I could give 15, but they needed 30."

Meram put away eight goals and six assists in a strong start to the 2017 season but hasn't found the back of the net since May 31. He admitted some loss of explosiveness due to nagging injuries.

"I mean, everyone (on the training staff) does a good job monitoring us. I just had so many little injuries that kept coming and they weren't going away," Meram said. "Just trying to battle through them and then another one comes and both sides of the feet are hurting and the way I play there are a lot of cuts and sprints and I was losing some of that explosiveness."

He's hopeful some much-needed rest and recovery between games will allow him to find a rhythm in the final 14 games of the season. One thing, at least, is clear: the Crew needs Meram, his explosiveness, passing and dribbling ability in order to stay afloat in a tightly-contested Eastern Conference playoff race.

"What will I be known as?" Meram asked rhetorically. "A guy who's a tale of two halves or a guy who puts a complete season together? (The latter) is my goal.

"When I produce we win games, so they kind of go hand in hand. For me, it's if I produce I'm helping the team win games and that's the ultimate goal is winning for this club. Let's stop talking about eight (goals) and six (assists) and let's start talking about zero and zero."

The 28-year-old midfielder knows there will be pressure on him and his teammates up top to perform down the stretch to give Crew SC (9-10-1) a shot at reaching the postseason. It's pressure Meram welcomes.

"It's who I am. A lot of people talk in the media about me, didn't think I could reach this potential," he said. "It's laughable because I know in my mind what I can do and they always seem to find a way to write you off. I love that."

Lessons learned in Germany

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen left Maryland after his sophomore season for German club SC Freiburg. While in Germany, he made 14 appearances for SC Freiburg II but also spent a significant chunk of time training with Freiburg's first team.

On-the-job training has been valuable for Steffen in his first season as the Crew's starting goalkeeper, but he was helped before his arrival in Columbus by being exposed to the German club's style of play.

"It's very similar to the Crew since we like to play out. Our goalkeepers have to be good with our feet and that's what they focus heavily on over there," Steffen said. "I would say that goalies over there definitely play a higher line, so I guess that goes with the sprinting (of German soccer). Other than that, it's pretty similar to the Crew, but it's a little bit different compared to a couple other teams in MLS."

It's not clear how much or if Steffen will play in Monday's friendly against Eintracht. If he does play, he'll do so with a greater understanding of Bundesliga tactics and style than most Americans his age.

On tour

Columbus is the third stop in a three-city American tour for Eintracht. The trip serves as a valuable training tool for a team that doesn't begin league play until next month.

Trips like it are becoming more and more common for European sides looking to get preseason game minutes against unfamiliar opponents.

Berhalter experienced similar trips during his playing days with Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich from 2002-09, but never to the United States.

"We went to Dubai all the time and we went to Turkey to play preseason games. Leverkusen was (coming to the U.S.) sometimes, Nurnberg did it a couple times, there were teams but it wasn't common," Berhalter said. "I think TV has a lot to do with (a higher number today). People know Frankfurt. Everyone in Europe knows Frankfurt and its rich history, but in the United States it was relatively unknown. Now the Bundesliga's been on TV for years and there's good analysis of Bundesliga and now everyone wants to come see a high level."

aerickson@dispatch.com

@AEricksonCD

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