Michigan soccer's Justin Meram: From no scholarship offers to first-round MLS draft pick
They were uniforms of former Yavapai players who had gone on from the central Arizona campus to professional teams.
Meram was motivated by the display. The jerseys reminded him of what he could accomplish if he worked hard enough.
The sight of professional soccer wasn’t always a motivator for Meram. Growing up, he couldn’t bring himself to watch soccer. After getting cut from several club teams, and not getting the playing time he thought he deserved on the teams he did make, watching the game he loved was painful for him.
“Growing up, I kind of disliked soccer," said Meram, who would eventually have a stellar career at Michigan and end up a first-round MLS draft choice. "It was my dream, but I would watch, and it would hurt.”
The Shelby Township native was an all-state player at Utica Eisenhower High School, but that doesn’t matter much to college coaches, who mostly focus on club-level success in recruiting.
No scholarship offers came, and the chip on Meram’s shoulder grew.
After high school, Meram moved to Arizona with his family with no real plan. Lucky for him he took his cleats, and a plan found him.
Someone took notice of Meram during a pickup game and tipped off Yavapai coach Mike Pantalione.
“An alumnus of ours, Maurice Hughes, got a hold of me and said, ‘You’ve got to take a look at this guy,’” Pantalione said.
A member of Yavapai’s 2002 and 2003 NJCAA national championship teams who went on to play professionally in the USL’s first division, Hughes knows soccer. Pantalione invited Meram to a practice solely on Hughes’ recommendation.
“He easily buried a dozen balls in the back of the net in that first practice. The next-best forward scored maybe two that day, Pantalione said.
Yavapai’s roster was full at the time, but Pantalione cleared a spot. He wouldn’t regret it.
In his two seasons (2007-08) at Yavapai, Meram had the most starts (52), second-most goals (51), second-most assists (30) and most points (132) in school history as Yavapai won back-to-back NJCAA national championships.
Meram was named NJCAA Player of the Year in 2008, and that’s when the scholarship offers from Division I programs came.
Meram chose Michigan and, in his senior season, was second on the team and fifth in the nation with 17 goals as the Wolverines reached their first College Cup - NCAA soccer’s version of the Final Four - in program history.
Before the season started, an MLS scout told Michigan coach Steve Burns that he considered Meram to be his “little secret.”
When the Columbus Crew selected Meram with the No. 15 pick in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 13, one thing was clear: The secret was out.
“When I got up there on that podium, I was just like, ‘Wow, this feels awesome,’” said Meram who was joined at the draft by Burns, Hughes, Michigan assistant coach Paul Snape and several family members.
Four years after being just another player in a meaningless pickup game thousands of miles from home, Meram will make another cross-country trip to Arizona when the Crew starts training camp on Jan. 29.
Pantalione called Meram after the draft and reminded him to pack an extra jersey. Though the wall’s kind of full at Yavapai, Pantalione is sure he can clear a spot. Pete Cunningham covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 734-623-2561. Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.