As Justin Meram tells it, he plays the game with a chip on his shoulder -- a trait he senses he will never quite shed. The temptation might be to interpret this in a negative light, a busted ego perhaps. Only he doesn't seem the sort. He's a genial individual, and well grounded. No, it would seem to run deeper than that. Because for as long back as Meram can remember, soccer, has been a test.
First of all he had to convince the soccer luddites that despite his slight physique he could still mix it at the highest levels. And now that spirit comes in handy when he is doing the thing that marks him out in a way no else can claim: as the only Christian in the Iraqi national team.
But Meram has hid a silver streak recently. He is the talented 27-year-old attacking midfielder who operated on the left wing with such aplomb for Columbus Crew last year. During their run to the 2015 MLS Cup, he scored the fastest goal in playoff history, a volley after nine seconds that knocked the stuffing out of New York Red Bulls. As the season closed, his agent noted interest in Meram from both Europe and the Middle East. But as well as that he is an unlikely international for Iraq, where both his parents were born and grew up. He is the first Chaldean Catholic in MLS, an American of Iraqi Christian parentage.
"Both of my parents met in the States, but both are from the same town, a place called Tel Kaif, which is near Mosul in the north of Iraq," he tells the Guardian. He was raised steeped in Chaldean culture. His parents remember a beautiful country, before they left, separately, as the region grew more unstable in the late 70s and early 80s. And if it was dangerous then, Meram reflects that things are much worse for Iraqi minorities in the era of Isis. "This is a sad moment in the lives of many Christian Iraqis," he says. That makes turning out for Iraq an even bigger deal than it otherwise would be for Meram. Still, when it became clear he could play for Iraq, his parents did not pressure him to accept the opportunity, letting him make up his own mind.
"Once I got my passport, I could not wait to be part of the national team, representing the country of my heritage and where my family grew or were born and raised," he says. "Iraq was always my No1 choice as I got further into my career."
Meram grew up in Shelby Township, a Detroit suburb at the heart of Iraqi Christendom in the United States. And it was there, at Eisenhower high school, that the paradox of his talent first reared its head. Despite a standout senior year, offers from top-tier colleges were not forthcoming. That led to a first fork in the road. Kicking for a college football team seemed a more realistic option.
So he followed his family to Arizona, and won a place on the soccer team at Yavapai College, a junior school north of Phoenix, after he was spotted playing in a park with his brothers. There he excelled: he notched 51 goals and 30 assists in 52 games. That garnered the attention of the University of Michigan and a Division I scholarship.
Under current Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter, he has kicked on. He made his Iraq debut in 2014, but his path to international soccer was convoluted: Meram had always figured the US was his only option on the national stage. "Yousif Alkhafajy, an Iraqi who runs a website [about Iraqi players abroad], found me a couple of years ago," Meram explains. "He saw the name and maybe heard from someone that I was an Iraqi professional playing in the States, [and] reached out to see if I'd be interested."
An arduous bureaucratic process followed as he struggled to get the necessary paperwork: his parents had left decades ago and the Islamic State takeover of the Mosul area exacerbated an already tricky situation. "To be truthful, there were a lot of moments when I thought it was never going to happen," he remembers. His first appearance finally came in the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations. He has since amassed 17 caps, scoring twice.
Right now, he is the lone Christian in the ranks, flying the flag for Iraq's Chaldeans, an ancient Assyrian people who have called the region home since long before the time of Jesus. It's an honor from which he clearly extracts much pride, for his parents and for himself. But does being the only Christian in such a politically charged environment cause tension? Meram says nothing could be further from the truth.
At first the main problem was his basic Arabic, which he has since improved. "I'm not sure how many are Shiite and how many are Sunni, I just know I'm the only Catholic or Christian guy on the team," he says. "I'm isolated but they respect me and my culture. I've learned a lot about their culture, and I respect them as well."
And despite the strife that has torn apart Iraq, its football show signs of promise. Meram expects to be called up for Iraq's next set of fixtures, a key World Cup doubleheader slated for late March. They face Thailand and Vietnam for the right to progress to the next round of Asian qualifying. Sitting five points behind Thailand having played one game fewer and four ahead of Vietnam, they are fairly well poised in their group.
Still, troubles are never far from the surface: Fifa ordered the team to play their home fixtures outside of Iraq for safety reasons. The March games will take place in Iran, an erstwhile foe in recent history. "It is tough," Meram says. "Imagine playing in Iraq, and you get 80,000 or 90,000 supporters who are gonna scream their lungs off for you, and you can't have that home field advantage.
"We've [moved] the games to Iran, we've moved them to Dubai, and we're only getting 5,000 or 6,000. It almost makes it like a neutral site. Hopefully one day Iraq can come back to being the country it was."
More broadly, evidence Iraqi football is on the up is fairly solid. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, the country's deep love for football has on occasion been met with victory on the field. Against the odds, they won the Asian Cup, the continent's top prize, in 2007 and will play at this year's Olympics.
Still, the set-up is not above intrigue. Meram seemed to find himself in thick of it late last year. After flying more than halfway round the world for Iraq's last qualifier away to Chinese Taipei, he did not even make the bench. Given his form at both club and international level, his omission was a head scratcher. It was suggested from one angle he might have been the victim of whatever sectarian squabbles govern the national team.
But he tries to stay above politics. "It wasn't right, but we won," he muses. "So there's not much I can say." Personally, he senses his ancestral homeland isn't far away from taking another footballing leap.
For now, there are scores to settle on the domestic front. Columbus burned out at the final hurdle last year, a mix of bad luck and a deficit in their own performance their undoing, Meram concedes. But there's that chip on the shoulder again. Displaying a resilience not unlike that of his father, who on first arriving in America did not speak a lick of English and made do working construction, he is unequivocal.
"I look at [last year] as a successful season, but obviously with the fall in the final," Meram says. "We've got to be proud. We've been there before and we know what it takes -- but looking to this season, if we don't make it back I think that's a failure. We have to be even better."