Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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In Pablo Campos and Etienne Barbara, Minnesota United signed the two biggest names at forward that it could find. Campos scored 20 goals last year. Campos and Barbara combined for 32 goals as teammates the previous year. But when reviewing the scoresheets for United's first two preseason games, you'll find another offseason signing alone in the goal column - striker Max Griffin.
Griffin, 25, was the club's last free-agent signing off the off-season, with his signature only official partway into the first week of practice - but it wasn't for lack of trying on the club's part. The team has had its eye on Griffin for years, dating back to 2010, when United team executive Djorn Buchholz had a similar role with the expansion Austin Aztex. Griffin was the league Rookie of the Year that season, scoring ten goals for Austin - but as it turns out, he wasn't even the first Griffin that the Aztex had in mind.
Says Buchholz, "In 2010, we had signed Leonard Griffin as a left back, and he said, 'Hey, I think you guys should take a look at my little brother.' So we brought him into preseason, and he was the last guy to make the roster - he earned his spot. And he ended up being Rookie of the Year in the entire league."
Since then, the team has had to wait for Griffin to be out of contract. The forward followed Austin when the team moved to Orlando, and did loan spells with both San Jose in MLS and with the Los Angeles Blues in USL Pro. After trial spells in the offseason this year with several clubs, Griffin heard from his agent that United was interested, and so jumped at his chance.
"I feel like they're one of the best teams in the NASL," says Griffin, "and so as a player it gives me more room to grow - and that's what I came here to do, get better as a soccer player."
Griffin made it to camp just in time to be a part of a few practices before the team took off for a training trip to Kansas City. Two games later, he'd scored both of the team's goals, one in each game, and head coach Manny Lagos was raving about his professionalism in showing up so ready to go. "He got thrown to the wolves, and he's done great," says Lagos.
Despite his size - 6'1", plenty big for a forward - the scouting report on Griffin is that he's a guy who likes to run at people, and control the ball. "He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and that's how he scored a lot of his goals in Austin," says Buchholz.
For his part, Griffin credits his work off the ball for being in the right spot at the right time. "I feel like my workrate is one of my biggest assets," he says. "It makes everything so much harder for defenders if you're just running all game. That’s the reason why during the offseason I try to get my fitness level up as much as I can, so I don’t get as tired running around."
This might explain why Griffin slotted so easily into the United lineup this early in the preseason. As for the elephant in the room - the Campos-Babara partnership that's likely to start the season up front - Griffin's just trying to put his head down and keep working. "I'm just trying to focus on myself and to work as hard as I can to get some playing time this year," he says.
Says Lagos, "We think this is a great stop for Max to grow and become a better player."
Says Buchholz, "He's a really great guy, and whether he's out there or not, he's going to push everyone that's in front of him."
Says Griffin, "Hopefully I can just get some goals for the team."
Says us: two games into the preseason, he's the only one who has.