A Division 1 soccer recruit, Lauren Bonavita was offered a unique and exciting opportunity: train and play for the US Girls Development Academy in its inaugural season. The club program will feed elite young talent directly to the national team.
But the Whitman-Hanson Regional senior, like many other high school players, had a tough decision to make.
In order to play for one of two academy teams, the Watertown-based Boston Breakers or the FC Stars of Acton, players must forgo all other athletic commitments, including high school and club leagues.
For Bonavita, giving up high school sports was too much to ask.
“I grew up in Hanson playing youth soccer, and as a young player I always watched the high school games,” said Bonavita, who played club soccer after the high school season ended and has made a verbal commitment to play at UMass Amherst next fall. And until this past spring, she had also played varsity lacrosse.
“The high school has a strong sense of community and a lot of school pride . . . I really didn’t want to walk away from the team,” she said.
Making a commitment to academy soccer would also deny her the opportunity to reach a high school milestone. She will enter her senior season with 70 career goals, with a realistic shot at 100 for a program coming off a 20-2-1 season and a Division 1 South title. “That’s something she’s not going to want to walk away from,” said her mother, Denise.
But the academy is undeniably attractive to top prospects. Coaches for each of the club’s four age-based teams (U18/19, U16/17, U15, and U14) must meet experience requirements established by academy administrators. With a strong focus on player development, each team’s season consists of at least four practices per week, 25-30 games across the country, and seasonal showcases for the best performers.
Payton Linnehan, a junior at Blackstone Valley Tech in Upton and a member of the U17 national team, believed the academy was the best route for her to improve as a player.
“I wanted to play where I would be challenged most, and the DA here is at a different level than high school,” she said.
James Blackwell, who coached the Natick High girls to the Division 1 South final last fall, is the academy director for the FC Stars. Blackwell believes the girls’ academy will succeed in professionalizing the country’s best young players — as the boys’ academy has done for nearly a decade.
“The DA is for the top 1 to 2 percent of players in the entire country. High school soccer is for the other 98 percent,” Blackwell said.
“I love coaching high school, because I do enjoy the social dynamic, but for the top 1 to 2 percent, it’s not the right fit. The DA is more training, better fields, three referees instead of two, all the things that the program was built for.
“This has pushed the girls to a level playing field with the boys, and I think that’s going to manifest itself with the US having consistent success on the field at the youth level, as well as producing the next Mia Hamms and Hope Solos of the world.”
But the notion of professionalization is exactly why some are skeptical of the academy concept.
In his 20-year run as the head coach at Newton South, Doug McCarthy has never worried about a club league detracting from “the high school experience.” Until now.
“The emotional component and camaraderie that’s associated with high school athletics can’t be duplicated,” said McCarthy.
“Parents would pay us money to sit on those team buses and feel the joy that we feel. The music is blaring, the girls are singing songs, and I’d look at my assistant and say, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ ”
But one of his players at South, junior Rebecca Edelstein, has decided to make a commitment to the academy.
“Playing DA means that I get to work with better players and really good coaches who will constantly push me to play at a higher level than I am at right now,” said Edelstein, who played goal at South but will explore playing other positions with the DA program.
Maddy Vergura, a captain-elect at Concord-Carlisle, will also go the academy route.
“I question if we’re being too narrow-focused in what we call ‘development’,” said Concord-Carlisle coach Peter Fischelis. “[Maddy] came to the conclusion that this was the route she needed to take, but not necessarily the one she wanted to, in terms of having to give up her senior year.”
Each player on an academy roster must start at least 25 percent of the team’s games to equalize playing time. But players that travel with the academy team are not guaranteed to get on the field. There can be up to 23 full-time players on the U16/17 and U18/19 rosters, but only 18 dress for games. Teams are allowed a maximum of five substitutions per contest.
Like most club leagues, the developmental academy has a standard registration fee: $50 per player. But the price of training and equipment fees, traveling cross-country, and other “administrative costs” can add up to several thousand dollars.
Still, Blackwell is adamant that financial issues will not affect consideration for a particular player.
“There is a fund that players can apply to help pay for the travel, and the DA is also working on scheduling and realigning divisions so that we aren’t traveling as far now,” said Blackwell. “We never want to turn a girl away for financial reasons.”
Blackwell spoke highly of trainers and medical staff appointed by the academy. He stated the lack of proper medical supervision in many high school and club leagues as inspiration for the academy to hire certified trainers and medical professionals for all of its teams.
The increase of concussions in youth sports recently has spiked injury concern dramatically, especially in girls’ soccer. According to a study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, concussions as a percentage of total injuries in girls’ soccer rose from 13.5 percent in 2006 to 34.5 percent in 2015.
Overuse is also being blamed for causing injuries, primarily for girls who play in club leagues. Playing soccer four to five times a week year-round and constantly using the same muscles, as opposed to playing different sports, can increase a player’s chances of getting hurt.
As more and more players are being groomed to pursue excellence in a single sport, the so-called “age of specialization” is being blamed for overuse and subsequent injury.
“ACL injuries, stress fractures, hips, particularly in young women, are due to overuse,” said McCarthy.
“And with that injury, where is she now? Someone else is going to fill that roster spot in a heartbeat.”
The choice will rest with the players and their families. For the 1-2 percent, with aspirations of taking a shot at playing for the national team, the decision will be relatively easy. For those players that have a strong bond to their teammates and respective school programs, or are multisport athletes, it may be more difficult.
Foxboroughsenior Lily Sykes could not justify forfeiting her final high school seasons in soccer and basketball, for both of which she will be a captain-elect. She started at point guard for the Foxborough team that advanced to the 2017 Division 2 state semifinals at TD Garden.
“The biggest part would be losing the people I hang out with every day,” said Sykes. “I’ve played with the four other basketball starters since I was in second grade, so this is like the last hurrah, and I think we’re going to be really successful.”
At Whitman-Hanson, Globe All-Scholastic Taylor Kofton decided to return this fall, although she is dealing with a torn ACL. Teammate Katie Korzec, a captain-elect who is taking four AP classes this fall, said her academic load was an obstacle.
“I like the idea of practicing more and getting more experience, but it just didn’t fit well for me,” said Korzec. “In general, I would say it was easy to pick high school . . . it just speaks volumes to what our program is all about.”Henry Brechter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @HBrechter.