Shannon Higgins and Michelle Akers-Stahl are gazing around the crowded Paramount Theater in New York. It is the first of many grand events leading to the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament in the United States, a Dec. 8 draw that divides 141 nations into tidy groups for two years of qualifying matches.

The sport's biggest names have arrived.

There's Pele, the Brazilian legend who 15 years ago helped introduce a simple game to a generation of young Americans; Franz Beckenbauer, the German hero; and Arrigo Sacchi, new coach of the elegant Italian team. Joao Havelange, president of FIFA, soccer's powerful governing body, greets representatives from all over the world. The international television audience is estimated at 300 million.

Eight days earlier, Higgins and Akers-Stahl had helped the United States' women's team win the FIFA world championship in China, this country's first global soccer title. And these are two of the team's stars, prime yields of the U.S. youth soccer explosion of the last two decades. They are picking out table-tennis balls atop the fancy stage to determine the matchups in the Asian region.

All eyes are on them.

They are not spectators.

They are not stargazers or autograph seekers.

They are part of the show.

"None of that would have happened if we hadn't won in China," Higgins said recently. "Imagine: me and Pele. I had no idea that would ever happen to me; hanging out with Pele, being at the draw. To be a part of something like that. . . . It was an experience I won't forget."

They have become celebrities of sorts, living proof that the rest of the world was wrong, that Americans can play the game with a touch of class and a lot of success. Some have dismissed the title because it came in women's soccer, which only recently became a competitive international sport and has yet to be accepted by the Olympics.

But perhaps years from now, when American soccer has gained worldwide acceptance, the triumphs of this team will be seen as the beginning.

"I guess you could say we were the pioneers," said reserve goalkeeper Kim Maslin-Kammerdeiner, a George Mason graduate who teaches and coaches at Marshall High School. "We brought some fame to women's soccer and to American soccer. We've paved the road for the youngsters, for the kids on my team and for every young person that plays."

The world championships -- in which the United States outscored its opponents 25-5 in six matches -- culminated two years of personal sacrifice. Many of the players quit good jobs. One temporarily quit school. Others held off starting families.

There was a reunion in Washington last month when the team was honored by President Bush, but essentially the players have gone their separate ways. Defense of the crown is scheduled for 1995, probably at a site in Europe. A few have said they are finished playing competitively, that it is time to move on with their lives. Others plan to remain involved and take part in the next championships.

But for now, all are content with enjoying their moment of fame. Said Coach Anson Dorrance: "We're going to ride this wave and do whatever we can for our game as long as people are listening because the window isn't going to be open forever."

April Heinrichs, the 27-year-old coach at the University of Maryland, wants to keep playing, but she is unsure of the team's future and of the USSF's commitment. Meantime, she may get involved in trying to earn the sport entry into the Olympics.

"The ball is in the federation's hands," Heinrichs said. "They know what they have. They have a gold mine. It was an untapped resource and now it's being tapped. It's really up to them."

Akers-Stahl, 26, who scored 10 goals in the championships, including the game-winner against Norway in the final, has gone overseas to continue her playing career. She is off to Sweden for the second straight year to play professionally for Tyreso FC. (Her husband, Roby, is the coach of the men's team.) Before she left, however, she was overwhelmed with requests for appearances, speeches and interviews all over the country.

And the aftermath has included financial benefits. Akers-Stahl is doing promotional work for Umbro, the English athletic equipment company. Carin Jennings, the most valuable player at the world championships, and Joy Biefeld signed with Diadora, an Italian company. Higgins, Heinrichs and Megan McCarthy hooked on with Lanzera, a U.S.-Italian shoe firm. Reston's Wendy Gebauer is with adidas.

Higgins, 23, said before the China trip that the world championships would be the end for her. She wanted to put her energies toward the George Washington University women's team that she began coaching last fall.

"I feel almost relieved that it's over," she said. "We worked so hard for so long. The whole time it was like, 'Can we win? Can we win?' It was a load off our shoulders when we finally did. . . . Along the way I had some doubts {if the sacrifices would pay off}, but it was definitely worth it."

Maslin-Kammerdeiner went on leave without pay from the Fairfax County school system for five months and just resumed teaching physical and special education and coaching the girls soccer team. Her absence, she said, was a financial strain on her husband, Roger, a consultant with George Mason, and, "I didn't know how we did it, but somehow we made it."

Jennings, nicknamed "Crazy Legs" in China for her speedy offensive bursts, this summer will marry Jim Gabarra, a former national team player. She lost four good jobs last year because of the demands of the sport, but she said the championships have opened doors in sports marketing.

Mary Harvey, the starting goalkeeper, will have the best of both worlds. As a senior consultant with Andersen Consulting, she recently was transferred to the company's office in Prague and likely will be able to continue her playing career for SSV Frankfurt, a German club that signed her in 1988.

Burke's Mia Hamm, the team's youngest player at age 19 and the daughter of an Air Force colonel, dropped out of North Carolina last fall to concentrate on training. She returned to classes last month and is pursuing an international studies degree and a career with the State or Defense departments. Dorrance will have her on the UNC team for two more seasons.

Kristine Lilly, the collegiate player of the year last fall at North Carolina; Linda Hamilton (North Carolina), and Brandi Chastain (Santa Clara) will continue their undergraduate studies, while Julie Foudy has entered Stanford medical school. Tracey Bates is headed for Creighton, where she will be the assistant to coach Ray Leone, her fiance. Biefeld, Carla Werden and Debbie Belkin want to be school teachers.

"All over the world, American soccer players and American soccer coaches classically have had a negative stigma," Dorrance said. "I think our achievement gave us a measure of international respect that we as Americans have never felt before. We're starting to feel it, and everyone on this team is so proud of what we've done."