Max Griffin was always supposed to be here, because it’s always what he wanted to do. Growing up in the soccer-rich environs of Southern California, Griffin’s soccer dreams extended to their natural climax: playing for UCLA, the region’s premier college soccer program. With the MLS academy system still years away and the path from amateur to pro still winding through the college system, Griffin’s dreams were understandable.
“When I was growing up, that’s what I dreamed about. I wanted to play at UCLA, go to college, hopefully go pro. There wasn’t anything else, really. If you wanted to play pro, you played in college.”
Griffin’s college career started brightly, with the speedy forward getting into the lineup in his freshman season. After ranking third on the Bruins in goals that first season, his sophomore year was cut short by an ACL injury. The setback wasn’t enough to keep from returning to form, however, and he played two more college seasons as a starter before finishing his NCAA career in 2008.
“The knee doesn’t bother me, I feel like I have all of my speed and explosiveness back. I just worked hard, and knew I could come back as good as before. I actually feel like I’ve gotten better, gotten stronger.”
Unfortunately for Griffin, the coveted invite to the MLS SuperDraft combine didn’t come, perhaps because of questions about his knee, and he was not selected by an MLS club in 2010. Despite the disappointment, Griffin was intent on continuing his career. MLS wasn’t the only professional opportunity available.
“I never really though about quitting. I thought I was good enough to play in MLS, but it just didn’t work out. Luckily, I got the opportunity to try out in Austin. I played well while I was there, and I felt very comfortable. Coach Heath gave me a chance, and I’m thankful for that.”
Through a connection to the club via his older brother, Griffin wrangled a trial with Aztex, signed with the club, and went on to win 2010 USL Rookie of the Year honors thanks to his haul of 10 goals. After the club moved to Florida to become Orlando City SC, Griffin continued his excellent play and helped lead the Lions to a pair of USL-PRO trophies.
After the close of the USL season, Griffin headed to San Jose to join the MLS Earthquakes on loan.
“It’s just part of trying to get better. I’m always learning as a player. I feel like college soccer is fast, but the professional game is even faster. It was definitely an adjustment, but I definitely feel capable of playing at the higher levels.”
While the top of the pyramid might be MLS, and Griffin certainly has designs on sticking around at that level, he’s happy with the way things have worked out with Orlando. Under manager Adrian Heath, Griffin says the club’s style isn’t the usual long ball/all-hustle American fare.
“Adrian definitely has a unique style, and we pride ourselves on keeping the ball moving, having quick touches. I’m not sure I should say this, but it’s like Barcelona. (laughs) We have a bunch of American players, others from all over. We know we’re can play good soccer.”
Despite his manager’s reservations about the US college system’s ability to prepare players to be professionals, Griffin wouldn’t have traded his experience at UCLA for a more traditional soccer upbringing. He’s not so sure it would have made him a better player.
“I don’t think I would trade playing in college for anything. I loved being at UCLA and I definitely think it made me better. Back when I was playing in Southern California, there weren’t really any other options than to go play in college. I got my degree, and I credit my time there for the player I am.”
Griffin’s immediate future remains unclear, mostly due to his loan spell with San Jose and the possibility of more MLS opportunities. But he remains under contract with Orlando City and is happy to remain with the Lions.
“We’ve got a good team, and it’s exciting to be part of something new in Florida.”