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Orlando City SC forward Maxwell Griffin joins the San Jose Earthquakes on loan for the remainder of the 2011 MLS season

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After being burned on a loan deal that brought unfit Ecuadoran striker Edmundo Zura to San Jose in August, the Earthquakes, still searching for more cover at the forward position, took a safer path and agreed to a loan deal with a player in which they were already familiar. Just before the MLS roster compliance deadline was reached yesterday, the San Jose Earthquakes acquired forward Maxwell Griffin on loan from Orlando City SC for the remainder of the 2011 MLS season.

Having spent part of the 2011 preseason training with the Earthquakes, and being on the radar of General Manager John Doyle since graduating from UCLA in 2008, the team had been looking to bring the forward to San Jose for over a year.

“We had him in preseason and we were really happy with him then,” said Doyle. “We were looking forward to having him on our team, but he had a preexisting contract with Orlando City. It was impossible to sign him outright because they had a real high transfer fee for Max.”

After his training stint with the Earthquakes, Griffin joined up with his Orlando City teammates and followed up his successful rookie campaign of 2010 with a fine sophomore effort. Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath summed up the efforts of his team’s leading scorer over the last two seasons.

“We’ve had Max since he came out of college and we’ve seen a gradual progression in his game,” said Heath. “He was our top goal scorer and rookie of the year last season, and he had nine goals in all competitions this year. He was disappointed not to be the league scoring leader this year because he certainly had the opportunities. It will be interesting to see what the coaches in San Jose think of his progression this year.”

Griffin featured for Orlando City as the lone forward in a 4-3-2-1 formation, and he finished with a team-high nine goals in 22 appearances. In his rookie campaign, Griffin totaled 11 goals in 29 appearances on his way to being named the USSF Division II Rookie of the Year. Coach Heath saw the former Bruin as both a creator and finisher of goals.

“He’s done a bit of both,” answered the former Everton and Burnley midfielder. “He’s made chances for himself and finished them off, and I’m sure he’d be the first to say that we created a lot of chances for him this year. If there has been one disappointment for Max this year would be the fact that he really should have finished as the league’s top goal scorer. Obviously his first touch in the box is something he works on constantly, as well as his finishing, but he is a work in progress. He has the raw materials to make a good living in this game.”

Those raw materials include plenty of pace and a seemingly endless supply of energy. Both traits are something that Doyle remembers from watching him train in the preseason.

“He has a phenomenal engine and work rate, and he’s been a good goal scorer with Orlando. We are looking forward to seeing what he can do in some games the rest of this season.”

Griffin impressed the Earthquakes coaching staff in the preseason and featured for the team during their trip to Southern California in early February. He was cut from the training roster prior to the Quakes trip to England, but was marked as a player to keep an eye on through 2011.

“A lot of MLS teams were interested in him,” explained Doyle. “We put a discovery claim on him at the start of this year, so we’re fortunate to potentially have him.”

With seven regular season games remaining for the San Jose Earthquakes, the minutes available to Griffin will likely me minimal, but the chance to assess the young forward in training over the next two months will be invaluable in charting how much progress he has made as a professional. His Orlando City coach is confident his Earthquakes counterparts will like what they see.

“He’s a very good athlete with some pace,” said Heath. “This year we’ve focused on helping him learn when and where to run. Certainly there’s a lot to work with because he’s a very good kid — a true professional — who wants to do well, to learn, and to improve.”

Coach Heath has been with the Orlando City SC organization back to when they were founded as the Austin Aztecs, and has been impressed with the quality of play he has witnessed and coached in the U.S. Soccer lower divisions. This season, his club was crowned 2011 USL Pro Division Champions after winning the final over the Harrisburg City Islanders on penalty kicks earlier this month. Since the end of their regular season, Orlando City have sent multiple players on loan or trial to teams in MLS.

“I’ve always said to my players that if they think that this is their last finishing point then they’re in the wrong sport,” said Heath, who as a player featured for six different teams in his native England. “Every player should want to play at the highest level if possible. We are very mindful that many of our players want to play in the MLS; we understand that. With the loans we’ve made, it’s obviously a chance for them to show what they can do.”

While conceding that most lower tiers teams in professional soccer tend to be breeding grounds for young players wishing to make an impact at the highest level, Heath also recognizes that Orlando might one day enter MLS as an expansion team, and he hopes to build a tradition of winning soccer in central Florida.

“I feel that on our team we have 4 or 5 players that could be playing in the MLS because that is how much I believe in their abilities,” said Heath. “When I look at our season this year, we have beaten 3 MLS clubs, we beat Newcastle United in their preseason, and in the U.S. Open Cup I believe FC Dallas would be the first to say they were lucky to beat us 3-2. We have a good team with some very good players; I know they will go and do well.”

If Griffin impresses during his time in San Jose, he may become another success story for Heath’s club, as the Earthquakes have an option in place to bring the forward aboard after the conclusion of the 2011 season. For Doyle, it all comes down to the transfer fee and whether the young player has developed enough to warrant paying the Orlando City SC for Griffin’s contract.

“There’s an option to sign him that is a reasonable number,” revealed Doyle, “so that if he does well, we can go to Orlando and sign him.”

With scoring goals an ongoing challenge for the Earthquakes, the door is wide open for Griffin to show that he is ready to make an impact at the MLS level.