The first in Chris DeVille's season-long Crew SC column

Justin Meram's past week: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Last Thursday, the 28-year-old Crew SC midfielder signed a multi-year contract extension that likely tripled his annual salary — a sweet reward for six seasons of service punctuated by team MVP honors last year. Two days later, he turned down a call-up to Iraq's national team for a pair of World Cup qualifying matches next week, presumably because he feared complications due to President Trump's travel ban.

That news was fresh when Columbus visited Houston for the year's first away match. Once again, there was something to celebrate — Meram's pass setting up an Ola Kamara goal continued a six-match assist streak dating back to last year — but it was marred by a 3-1 loss that found the Crew struggling to shake many of last year's bad habits.

Columbus has a whole season ahead of it, so despite going winless in two matches, there's no reason to panic yet. Iraq's situation is more urgent: They need at least a win and a draw against Australia and Saudi Arabia to fend off World Cup elimination.

Meram, born in Michigan to Iraqi parents, has already appeared in seven qualifiers for Iraq this cycle, so it's painful to step aside at this crucial juncture. He seemed heavy-hearted speaking to the media Monday, chalking up his decision to “difficult situations going on” and refusing to elaborate. “I'm very sad about it,” he said, “but I'm … hopeful that in the near future I'll be back with the national team.”

Iraq is playing its home games in Iran due to FIFA sanctions, so Meram would have been traveling to Tehran. A statement from the Iraqi team — translated by fan site Massive Report — said the team “exhausted a considerable effort with Meram to change his mind,” arguing that he'd have no trouble re-entering the U.S.

It's understandable that Meram wouldn't want to risk it, given that he's built a life for himself here in Columbus — plus he's likely making half a million dollars this year, up from $185,000 last season. His new deal required the Crew to spend Targeted Allocation Money, only available for salaries over $480,625. All that money won't remove the pain of missing those qualifiers, but it's certainly motivation to focus on getting Crew SC back to the MLS elite.