Max Murray, center, played development academy soccer for Seacoast United the past two falls, earning a scholarship offer from the University of Vermont. This fall, he is returning to play for the Kennebunk High soccer team. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

KENNEBUNK — Kennebunk High’s Max Murray has already earned Varsity Maine All-State basketball honors.

Now, the 6-foot-5 senior is ready to show the rest of the SMAA how good he is at his best sport – soccer.

For the past two years, Murray has played soccer during the high school season in a U.S. Soccer Development Academy for Seacoast United in New Hampshire. Seacoast United is one of nearly 200 clubs across the country in the program.

Development academy soccer, which includes programs directly affiliated with Major League Soccer teams like the New England Revolution, provides high-level players a more intense, competitive training atmosphere and game schedule. The approach is comparable to the club-based soccer system in Europe, and similar to junior hockey in the U.S.

“The competition there, you just don’t get it anywhere else,” Murray said. “Every weekend, you’re coming up against a kid who is probably on the national team or is getting heavily recruited by the top Division I schools in the nation.”

But there’s a catch. Committing to a development academy team means forgoing soccer at the high school level.

Murray, 17, is one of four southern Maine players who have returned to their high school soccer teams for their senior seasons after two or three seasons in development academy soccer.

For Murray, the decision to play his senior year for Kennebunk was relatively easy.

“It brings back a lot of joy playing soccer, because I grew up with these kids,” he said.

Murray said the past two years with Seacoast United were worthwhile. His skills improved. A center back on his club team with exceptional speed, the increased exposure also helped in college recruitment. Murray has made a verbal commitment to accept a partial scholarship from the University of Vermont.

Murray played at Kennebunk as a freshman. At that time, he was playing club soccer with GPS out of Portland, which did not directly conflict with the high school schedule. By switching to Seacoast United, Murray signed up for a 10-month commitment each year, which included four to five practices a week in Epping, New Hampshire, and up to 30 games annually, with trips to Florida in the winter and San Diego in June.

“I wanted to become the best player that I could, and I felt like for me to get where I wanted to be for soccer, that was the best route to take,” Murray said.

At Marshwood High, Owen Bynum, 17, has returned this fall to fortify the Hawks’ midfield after two years in the Seacoast United program.

“I loved the academy experience and I’m definitely going back in the spring, but I wanted my senior year to end with me being a Hawk,” Bynum said.

Aidan Melville will be playing high school soccer this fall for Greely after playing for developmental academy teams with the New England Revolution and D.C. United. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In Class B, Alejandro Coury of Yarmouth and Aidan Melville of Greely, two highly skilled midfielders, will get their first taste of high school soccer.

Coury, 16, and Melville, 17, both played their first two seasons of high school-age soccer for the New England Revolution, which required them to move to the Boston area and either enroll in a new high school or take courses online.

Coury switched to Seacoast United his junior year. Melville played two-plus years in the Revolution program, then finished his junior season with DC United in Washington, D.C.

Bynum, Coury and Melville agreed that their play improved dramatically with the combination of professional coaching and being surrounded by like-minded teammates.

“For sure. I think 10-fold really,” Coury said. “I got so much better, especially my first year. Pretty much every kid on our team was the best kid on their club team, so coming into that, it just made it all so much better.”

For Melville, who lived with extended family in greater Boston and D.C., the development academy approach “seemed to align with everything I wanted to accomplish. It definitely helped me a lot. It’s a lot of better players that care a lot about the game coming together, so each training and each game is that little bit more intense.”

Melville said that if his living situation had worked out this fall, he probably would have returned to DC United. Like Bynum, he intends to return to an academy after the high school season ends.

It’s hard to gauge how many Mainers will play development academy soccer this season. Neither Seacoast United nor the Revolution have announced their rosters. Murray said two potential Kennebunk teammates, junior Connor Thompson and freshman Aidan Marley, are with Seacoast this season.

High school soccer coaches have mixed feelings about the development academy approach. Several coaches pointed to Gorham senior Andrew Rent, the returning Varsity Maine Player of the Year, as an example of how a high school-plus-club approach can work. Rent has committed to Boston University.

“Andrew Rent has always been such a great player, the possibility of him going to a (development academy) was always there,” said Gorham Coach Tim King. “I always felt fortunate that he didn’t leave, and in some ways it shows you can be successful staying with your high school team.”

Scarborough Coach Mark Diaz believes the growing trend is for players to test the development academy waters and then return to their high school.

“Those academies are intense,” Diaz said. “I’ve asked some of them point-blank why they came back, and to a man they’ve said, ‘Coach, this is the most fun I’m going to have playing soccer and I want to have that fun.’”

For Murray, that connection between community and friends drew him back to the high school game.

“I love playing soccer for Kennebunk and being able to wear the Kennebunk across my chest one last time,” Murray said. “I know this senior class. I’ve been playing with them for so long, since first or second grade, and I just felt it was right for me to come back and play one last ride all together.”

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