In the first half of the U.S. soccer team's World Cup match against Austria on June 19, forward Bruce Murray sensed an offside trap coming. As the Americans crossed midfield, Austrian players suddenly rushed forward and tried to catch them in the unlawful zone.

Murray retreated to avoid the offside call. As a counterattack, he straddled the defensive line, attracted the attention of teammate Marcelo Balboa and burst past the Austrians as Balboa pushed the ball into the open area.

The linesman raised his flag to signal an infraction. Referee Jamal Al-Sharif acknowledged it and blew the whistle. Murray objected loudly. Television replays indicated that he had a clean breakaway.

The call was a familiar one. Offside. But did Murray break into the open zone before Balboa's pass? Was he in line with the final defender, or did the linesman misread the play?

On July 25, 17 days after the finish to the lowest-scoring World Cup tournament in history, FIFA, soccer's international governing body, will change the offside rule for the first time in 65 years. Its aim is to increase scoring chances and enhance what critics call a stale and antiquated game.

"It definitely will help, but I'm not sure if it's enough," Murray said. "People are demanding change. We're not playing basketball with peach baskets anymore. The hierarchy is so unreceptive to change. The game has stagnated. We need change."

The offside rule may be the first of many changes designed to enliven the game before the 15th World Cup comes to the United States in 1994.

FIFA President Joao Havelange has proposed four 25-minute quarters instead of two 45-minute halves, which would give television additional commercial time during the match. Expansion from 24 to 32 teams, first-round elimination matches and use of domed stadiums also are possible for 1994.

The primary concern, however, is the shortage of goals.

Overall, Italia '90 was as unattractive as West Germany's 1-0 victory over Argentina in the championship match: 115 goals in 52 games. That's an average of 2.21 per match, an all-time low for the world's most popular sporting event. In 1954, 140 goals were scored in 26 matches.

Under the new rule, an attacker is onside if he is in line with the final defensive player. The original rule required a defender between the offensive player and the goalkeeper to avoid an infraction. Now, if you're even, you're on.

"The change is to give the attacking player an advantage over the defender. It will encourage attacking football," FIFA spokesman Andreas Herren said last month.

Since an offside call frequently ends a scoring threat, teams often restrain their attacks to avoid loss of the ball. FIFA now hopes coaches will alter their strategy and try to generate more attacks.

"The interpretation now is anything close is definitely going to be called offside and that's rubbish," Murray said. "Now if it's a close play, maybe the referee is going to let it go."

U.S. amateur and youth organizations are expected to adopt the measure soon. Owners of the American Professional Soccer League's 23 teams, consisting of the American and Western Soccer Leagues, will discuss it after the season ends in September. The NCAA isn't expected to implement it until next February when the rules committee meets.

"I think our offside rule is the most debilitating rule in all of soccer," said Seattle Pacific University Coach Cliff McGrath, secretary of the NCAA rules committee. "FIFA has, in a backhanded way, acknowledged that they have to do something about the area inside 35 yards."

McGrath's suggestions to alter or completely eliminate the offside rule in the past were labeled "too radical." In the 1970s the defunct North American Soccer League was scorned by European traditionalists for using a 35-yard line in the same way as hockey's blueline.

"It will create more opportunities. Whether it creates more goals or not is up to the guys at the end of the play," University of Virginia Coach Bruce Arena said.

Scott LeTellier, president of the Washington-based 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee, said: "We welcome {the new rule} because it's evident that FIFA acknowledges the need to find ways to make the game more attractive to the United States and the rest of the world. It indicates a willingness on FIFA's part to break from tradition and to improve the quality of the game."