Women's professional soccer was supposed to get underway tonight. Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and other stars from the gold medal-winning 1996 U.S. Olympic soccer team expected to walk onto grass fields across the United States, including in Bethesda, to play as professionals in their home country for the first time.

Before its demise in December, the National Soccer Alliance -- the proposed women's league -- seemed to be capitalizing on the success of the Olympic team. Last year the NSA had the support of the Olympic team, major apparel companies Nike and Reebok and a pair of deep-pocketed investors.

The NSA, however, never gained perhaps the most crucial element: the support of soccer's national governing body, the U.S. Soccer Federation. Lacking that, the league seemed doomed from its January 1997 inception until its mid-December collapse.

The NSA's quiet, lengthy struggle with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which is essentially endowed as the guardian of soccer in the United States, raised questions about the Federation's wielding of its considerable clout. Although supporters of the upstart league wanted to use the 1996 Olympics -- the first Games in which women's soccer was a medal sport -- as a springboard for professional women's soccer in the United States, the Federation maintained that 1998 was a bad time to launch such a venture.

U.S. Soccer Federation officials said they feared a new women's league would interfere with the still-growing, three-year-old men's professional league, Major League Soccer. Other officials said they believed it would detract from the 1999 women's World Cup, an international event that will be hosted by the U.S. Soccer Federation and played at several U.S. venues, including Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.

And U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg, who founded Major League Soccer, took the position that the 1999 women's World Cup would provide the ultimate springboard for a women's pro league to start in 2000, 2001 or 2002.

"I was of the view, and I remain of the view, that what we really need to do is a spectacular 1999 Women's World Cup and then follow that with a pro league," Rothenberg said. "After Atlanta was too soon."

Rothenberg said the U.S. Soccer Federation, despite those views, remained open to sanctioning the NSA. But, Rothenberg said, the NSA failed to demonstrate that it had an adequate financial backbone or a credible blueprint for operations. Should the league have folded after one season, Rothenberg said, great harm would have come to women's soccer overall.

"The main thing we were concerned about was that it wouldn't make it. . . . If it would have fallen on its face, it would have hurt progress tremendously," Rothenberg said. "Then everyone would remember a failure, and who would dare try it again?"

NSA officials say they had the requisite elements and that the Federation stole any chance for success by withholding its sanction.

"It wasn't a lack of planning, a lack of financial support or a lack of support of the players, and we had the interest of TV," said the NSA's Jennifer Rottenberg, who directed much of the effort. " . . . I felt some tension from {the U.S. Soccer Federation}. Actually, some hostility. . . . I think it was a missed opportunity." Sanctioning Problems

In no document or piece of law does it state that an upstart pro league must be "sanctioned" by its sport's national governing body, which operates under the charge of the Amateur Sport Act enacted by Congress in 1978. For practical reasons, however, such as using referees, getting players and gaining sponsors, a new league's success can depend on obtaining the sanction or at least support of a national governing body.

If a pro league is powerful enough -- and few incipient leagues are -- it may ignore its sport's national governing body, which has great latitude in making rules for its members. Major league baseball, for example, is not a member of USA Baseball. But the survival of a women's pro soccer league clearly would hinge largely on the participation of Olympic athletes -- athletes who gain fame playing for national teams that are sponsored by the national governing body. Major league baseball doesn't need Olympians to survive, but the NSA, in effect, needed the U.S. Soccer Federation and its Olympic players.

National governing bodies have, in some cases, embraced new leagues. USA Basketball opened its membership to the two new women's professional leagues. Some legal experts say a national governing body has an obligation to support ventures that could grow the sport, such as a new pro league.

A local expert in sports law, attorney Mark Levinstein of Williams & Connolly, said the Federation "killed" the NSA as a business entity.

"One of the worries of the Amateur Sports Act was this manipulation of the word sanction' to further private interests," said Levinstein, who represented the men's national team when it fought the Federation for higher pay three years ago. " . . . The women's league was stomped on by the Federation -- but it didn't take stomping. They didn't embrace it and it died."

Rothenberg and the U.S. Soccer Federation are not unacquainted with controversy. When the U.S. Soccer Federation examined three bids to start a new men's pro league, it was Rothenberg's Major League Soccer bid that beat other proposals. About two weeks ago, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced after an examination of the Federation's membership that the Federation would lose its status as a national governing body unless it completed an internal restructuring within six months.

While some issues regarding this attempt by the NSA to start a women's league remain murky, this is clear: Of the three women's team sports at the 1996 Olympics in which the United States won the gold medal -- soccer, softball and basketball -- only one has not yet seen the formation of at least one pro league. In fall 1996, the American Basketball League got underway. Last summer, the Women's National Basketball Association and the Women's Pro Fastpitch softball league started. Starting Point

In January 1997, the NSA began its quest for a season that would have opened today. But on Dec. 5, the two major investors -- Discovery Channel CEO John Hendricks of Bethesda and retired York, Pa., businessman Randy Byrnes, withdrew their support.

Then-Washington state Governor Booth Gardner founded the NSA. Noted North Carolina Coach Anson Dorrance agreed to work with Gardner in a voluntary role, and Rottenberg, a Harvard business school alumna, was hired. Twelve U.S. Olympic team players signed letters-of-intent, committing them to the NSA for the year.

"Being out of college, I was one of those that wanted a league," said Hamm, the biggest star of the '96 Olympic team. "We don't have any place to play. The national team suffers, because the major amount of training is done on our own. . . . I think we are also losing a lot of the player pool out of college. We're losing a lot of gifted and talented players who, once they get out of college, have to decide: How are they going to make a living?"

Nike, which sponsors Hamm, expressed interest in the NSA early in 1997. But Nike's interest in the NSA faded, according to spokesman Tony Tijurino, because of Nike's ties to the U.S. Soccer Federation, which made it clear it did not support the league. Nike sponsors the women's national team. "All of our focus is on giving this team the best opportunity to win the World Cup," Tijurino said. "We support the Federation and how they see things."

Reebok spokesman Don Rawson said Reebok wanted to be a major NSA sponsor and proposed a seven-figure investment. He said Reebok wanted to fund at least half of the eight teams (about $4 million per year), but was told by the NSA that a lesser level of sponsorship was desired to make room for other sponsors.

Rottenberg said the NSA, which was operating primarily on loans from its two investors, was negotiating with eight corporations interested in sponsorship packages in the range of $1 million per year (each essentially funding one team) and several other companies willing to commit less per year. Rottenberg said the NSA was offering three-year deals and anticipated a sponsorship income of $14 million to 16 million per year -- once the deals were signed.

No deals, however, were signed.

"We wanted to step up and be a founding partner," Rawson said of Reebok. "Our first proposal was to be the founding partner. . . . {But} we were waiting for sanctioning. I think everybody was."

In February 1997, the U.S. Soccer Federation, in response to NSA announcements about starting a league the following spring, empowered a committee to create standards for the formation of such a league. The group agreed that the standards that had been created for Major League Soccer a few years earlier needed to be revised to include smaller budget requirements, smaller stadium size requirements and other adjustments to give a women's league a fair chance to get off the ground.

But at the first meeting in March, the committee members spent several hours discussing their mission, according to committee chairman Robert Contigulia, rather than the standards. Recalled one of the committee members, Marty Mankamyer: "I didn't feel uncomfortable saying the timing might be better after the World Cup. . . . A number of people expressed the idea of allowing MLS a little bit of breathing room to develop a fan base before interjecting a dilution factor."

But the group eventually agreed that "it was not our job to decide," Contigulia said. "It was our job to write the standards."

About four months later, on July 17, the group unveiled a nine-page outline of standards for Women's Professional Outdoor Divisions I, II and III (each section consisted of three pages). Three weeks after that, on Aug. 12, the NSA received a faxed copy of the standards from the U.S. Soccer Federation. The standards consisted of 10 categories and set requirements for everything from coaches to media guides to stadium sizes.

Rottenberg said the committee spent an excessive amount of time on the standards. Contigulia says that "we bent over backward to try to make it work for them . . . we did our best to come up with standards as quickly as we could."

U.S. national team members Carla Overbeck and Julie Foudy were on the committee. Foudy said "there were so many issues. . . . Carla and I never claimed to be business graduates or MBA students."

On Sept. 12, one month after receiving the standards, the NSA filed its nearly 300-page application to be a Division I member of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

On Oct. 4, the U.S. Soccer Federation formed another committee, this one chaired by Burton Haimes, to evaluate that application. Haimes said the Federation sought concrete evidence of the NSA's alleged sponsorship and stadium commitments.

"We didn't have firm commitments on investors, firm commitments with sponsors, firm commitments with stadia, nothing," Haimes said. "There was a lot of talk about it, and it probably would have come in time, but the question was, when?"

Rottenberg said the signatures would have come after the league received the Federation's sanction. She said she offered to produce letters-of-intent from her group of sponsors outlining general financial terms.

To the players, the process seemed to be dragging.

"The corporate sponsors like adidas, Reebok and Nike types approached us after the Olympics and said we need to get a league going," Foudy said. "This is the time and they wanted to be involved. . . . There was a lot of corporate enthusiasm for it, but it kept getting stalled and stalled and stalled."

As October came and went, Rottenberg said the NSA -- recognizing that an April start was becoming unrealistic -- offered to hold off on its plan to start in spring 1998, proposing instead a 2000 start date -- after the 1999 World Cup.

But Rothenberg, in a letter dated Nov. 10, told Rottenberg and he remained skeptical about the NSA's ability to get any league off the ground at any time.

"While I take my hat off to you for your pluck . . . " the U.S. Soccer Federation president wrote to Rottenberg before a Nov. 18th meeting with her and other soccer officials, "I believe that we are a long way from a compromise.' We are even further away from any press conference."

About a month later, Hendricks and Byrnes, the investors, informed the NSA they were dropping out of the venture. According to Hendricks, he and Byrnes backed out not because of the U.S. Soccer Federation's unwillingness to offer its sanction, but because the NSA hadn't executed firm, exclusive, long-term contracts with the 12 Olympians -- whose letters-of-intent from January 1997 were about to expire. Rottenberg said signing the players to long-term deals required knowing the league's timetable.

Foudy said the players were 100 percent committed to the NSA. "There's obviously a communication problem, as you've noticed. . . . Ask him why he thought we weren't committed, when he didn't talk to any of us."

Said Hendricks: "I didn't get the sense the players weren't committed, but I was looking for firm contracts. . . . It seemed like a lot of risk." New Beginnings

In the end, the attempted league folded without mudslinging. The U.S. national team players managed to put their disappointment into perspective. The U.S. Soccer Federation, after all, had scheduled a full slate of women's international games this year. And the 1999 World Cup sits on the horizon.

"As a player, you always want to play, you always want to put yourself in the best environment to play and train, and we hoped a league would be able to do that," Hamm said. "But as the opportunity in terms of time got smaller, I understood why it wasn't the best time. I didn't want anything to start if everyone wasn't on the same page."

On March 18, months after the NSA's official demise, the U.S. Soccer Federation appointed a new committee: a seven-person panel to take aim at the development of women's professional soccer in the United States. Contigulia was appointed chairman.

Hendricks and Byrnes say they would be willing to consider investing in another league down the line. According to Tijurino, Nike will be on board whenever the Federation deems it the appropriate time for a league to launch.

"I can understand the disappointment the folks at the NSA have," Contigulia said. "I can understand pointing a finger and trying to blame the Federation for what happened. But I think it's more important to try to look forward at getting another league going, getting it properly capitalized, and doing it in the right time frame where there is less chance for failure."

Said Rothenberg: "This is something near and dear to our hearts." CAPTION: Olympians such as Mia Hamm (8) were committed to the development of the National Soccer Alliance, but the sport's national governing body never gave its support. The pro league was to begin play today.