By Katie Felts NewsChannel 5 Sports
St. Louis (KSDK) - A growing controversy is changing the face of soccer for high school kids in St. Louis, a town where soccer is as much a part of the landscape as Cardinal baseball. There is a new program that costs a lot of money if you want to play.
The US Soccer Federation is putting development academies across the country. The idea is to identify the top talent as potential pro players.
St. Louis has an academy but, the question is, are these the best players or the players that can afford to pay? To play soccer if you have a ball and a pair of shoes you're ready to go.
Tom Michler runs New Dimensions Soccer on shoelaces and fun.
"Soccer in St. Louis use to be more what we called a poor man's sport," said Michler.
And in some parts of the city it still is.
"It's become a rich man's sport," said Michler.
This fall, a program sponsored by the US Soccer Federation will start their development academy which is supposed to be the elite of the elite.
Tim Leonard is the academy's head coach.
"We bring kids from within our own club because most of my U18 and U16 I've had since 13-years-old," said Leonard.
But some say the only way to play in this academy is if you can pay. CBC Head Coach Terry Michler is the winning high school coach in the nation.
"I don't know that they even have the best kids in the area on the team because there's a lot of undeserved kids," said Michler.
It's a fact Leonard doesn't dispute.
"We've seen good players outside the club plenty of good players outside our own club but we don't recruit them," said Leonard.
The academy, which is operated by the Scott Gallagher Soccer Club, is a 10 month program. Those who commit to it can't play for their high school. And their parents are sacrificing too financially
"It's $3,500 per season that includes everything for a player. The air travel they do fly quite a bit. Training three to four nights a week, uniforms, games that kind of things," said parent John Steurer.
If you have a child that participates in the academy for four years that's $14,000. One year of tuition at Mizzou is $22,000. That's a decision for the parents.
"We do try to mitigate the financial obligation from the families that are having challenges, maybe we'll leave a few kids behind on a tournament and let them play in different tournaments," said Scott Gallagher Board President Jim Kavanaugh.
"If we're calling it select let's be select because otherwise sometimes what we end up with is collect," said Michler.
Four years ago former academy coach Tom Howe says he saw the development academy as an opportunity until the money became an issue.
"All the best local kids all the best coaches trained by Scott Gallagher people train them the same way and the academy kids weren't going to pay. But it all turned out that it was all (expletive)," said Howe.
But soccer academy Board President Jim Kavanaugh disagrees.
"I'm not exactly sure back then I wasn't around when Tom Howe was around as club official not exactly sure. I can't really comment on what was stated back then. I can tell you today there was never a commitment made that the club would pay 100 percent of the academy kid's payment process," said Kavanaugh.
The parents we spoke to say they support the club.
"It's like having an all star team year round," said Jaime Swanner.
"Maybe before I leave this world we can win the World Cup," said Jeff Panchot.
In the end, the question is, is pay for play worth it?
"You're probably better off taking that money and just investing it somewhere and putting it away towards college," said Michler.
That from a man who teaches a poor man's game.