Michigan’s Own Cup Hero Meram Brings the Star Power

Discovered by chance in a public park in 2007, Justin Meram took a circuitous path to a decade-plus career in MLS before dropping down the divisions to line up with hometown NISA side Michigan Stars for one last hurrah in the 2024 Open Cup.
By: Jonah Fontela

Justin Meram was at a crossroads.

He’d just finished high school and there were the traditional questions: College? Work? Follow his brothers into their dad’s construction business? He wasn’t thinking much about the future that day in the summer of 2007, kicking around in a park in Scottsdale, Arizona when he caught someone’s eye.

“I wasn’t recruited to play soccer in college,” said the midfielder, who was dangerously close to being totally overlooked, before eventually going on to play for over a decade in Major League Soccer.

“Someone just saw me playing in a park for fun,” added the former wide man and one-on-one wizard, now 35 and helping Division III NISA pros Michigan Stars get a run going in the Open Cup – a tournament he won with Atlanta United back in 2019.


That someone who saw him that day was Maurice Hughes, alumnus of Yavapai College in nearby Prescott, Arizona – where Meram’s family had relocated from the Detroit suburbs. He called Mike Pantalione and Hugh Bell, who ran the show at the school, one of the top junior college soccer programs in the country.


“That was that,” Meram remembered with a chuckle about being given a walk-on role in the team sight unseen by the coaches. “Maurice thought I had talent and suddenly it all started from there.”

Justin Meram with his latest club – NISA’s Michigan Stars / Samuel Allen Photography

It was one of those magic moments so rare it hardly seems credible. But that’s just how it went down. Rare talent spotted, appreciated, approached and set about on a path. Meram won two Junior College National Championships with Yavapai. He was named the 2008 National Junior College Player of the Year. Then the University of Michigan – one of those big schools who’d initially ignored his talents – came calling.

The Wolverines had a full-scholarship in their hands. Meram had 14 goals and 24 assists in 41 games as a Wolverine and was picked 15th in the First Round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.


From the Park to the Pros

 “I went from nothing – no real future in the game – to two national titles with Yavapai and a full-ride to the University of Michigan. I was just some kid who liked to play in his backyard but never got recruited by any big schools,” said Meram, who speaks slowly and rarely over-does even the most dramatic bits of his unlikely story. “Then I was drafted to be a pro and that was it. All of those pieces seem pretty amazing when I look back.”


Meram grew up playing soccer in his backyard in Shelby Township, Michigan, a suburb north of Detroit. He joined up with well-known youth club side Vardar in a squad made up of kids from all over Metro Detroit. “We always went to the Nationals,” recalled Meram of his early days with the ball, learning the crucial lessons that saw him play for five different MLS teams before coming out of an assumed – if not declared – retirement a few weeks ago to line up for NISA’s Michigan Stars.

Meram (far left) pops the champagne after winning the Open Cup in Atlanta in 2019

“Back then it was about having fun, loving the game and trying to grow every year.”


The only trophy Meram won in his decade as a top-flight MLS pro was our Open Cup. It’s that very same prize he’s hunting this year with the Stars, who beat NPSL’s Steel City FC and MNUFC2 of MLS NEXT Pro to book a place in the Third Round.


Meram, who has slowed somewhat but still has a preternatural ability to go around defenders and create shooting opportunities, was outstanding for Atlanta United in the 2019 Cup-winning run. “The farther you get, the tougher it gets. It starts to feel more real,” he said on the eve of that year’s Final – a sentiment that fits his humbler home with the Stars today.

His performance in the 2019 Semifinal, coincidentally on the road against Orlando City where he had an unhappy stint the season before, was a perfection. With then Atlanta ace Josef Martinez out injured, Meram picked up the baton in attack and tortured his marker out on the left side. He constantly poked holes in the Orlando City back-line and forced defenders into mistakes.

Meram (second from right) with his Open Cup winners medal
“He’s a tricky player,” said two-time Open Cup winner Jeff Larentowicz of his old Atlanta teammate Meram. “He’s kind of a three-dimensional player with a lot of weapons.” Michigan Stars executive Chris McInally, knows what he’s got with Meram too: “He brings an incredible amount of experience to the team and does an amazing job in the locker room instilling confidence in the guys.”

Meram is a rare American-born player. His skills are deep set in the creative arts. He’s best going straight at a defender and locking up their knees. If he stands you up, you’re in trouble. Doesn’t matter who you are. He’s fast but not too fast. His balance is excellent and his passing is deadly.

“I love being able to play with flair and dominate the opponent – this is what I love most about the game. I love rolling up my sleeves in a hostile environment,” said Meram, who played 36 times and
scored four goals for his parents’ birthplace of Iraq before retiring from international play in 2022.

Don’t Fear the Hostile Away Days

“I’ll never forget that game in Orlando [the 2019 Open Cup Semifinal] – with the whole stadium against me from the warm-up to the final whistle.”

He may never forget it, but, on the day, he didn’t seem to notice the purple wall that rained abuse down on him from start to finish. He was too busy dominating his former club.

Meram will have a similar level of animosity to deal with in this year’s Open Cup Third Round when his new club head into the home of their long-time enemy Detroit City FC of the Division II USL Championship. The game will be played in the belly of the beast known as Keyworth Stadium.

If Meram thought it was bad in Orlando in 2019, this could be worse.

Detroit City FC’s hardcore fans have a particular contempt for Major League Soccer. And they never tire of making their position known at full volume. Meram, with a proud history in that league and now a member of former NISA league mates and rivals the Stars, may be in for some special attention.

“The Open Cup is always complicated and you’re always going to have to play in places that are difficult,” said Meram, who knocked out two of his former clubs (Orlando City and Columbus Crew) en route to the 2019 Open Cup crown. “You have to just deal with all of that and get on with it.”


There aren’t many third division sides that have an Open Cup winner who can tell the young ones what it’s like to lift the oldest prize in our country’s soccer. “It’s an incredible feeling,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it.

“You always have to dig deep,” added Meram, who never would have expected what’s come his way since that fateful pick-up game long ago in Scottsdale. “You can’t be scared of the moment.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.