The coach of one of the most influential women's sports teams in U.S. history is a man who says he believes male and female athletes respond differently to criticism, separation from their families and personal relationships within the team.

Though he says there are more similarities than differences between men and women in sports, Tony DiCicco said he tries to be sensitive to the special needs of the 20 women he coaches on the U.S. team that will meet China in Saturday's Women's World Cup championship game.

Outsiders might disagree with his thesis, but the players under DiCicco have responded favorably and commend him for his perceptiveness.

"He's developed and learned," said U.S. midfielder Kristine Lilly, who has played in more international matches than any other woman in the world. "There is a difference coaching men and women, and that's the key."

The female players under DiCicco's direction have long fought for opportunity and equality. They will be remembered as pioneers in women's soccer and international sport, particularly with respect to the events of this summer. Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl is expected to draw more than 88,000 people. That would be the largest crowd for a women-only sporting event in history.

The U.S. women's team has become a nationwide sensation during this tournament, selling out major stadiums, attracting throngs to their training sessions and appearing in newspapers, magazines and newscasts nationwide. Such star treatment is usually reserved for only the most prominent men's teams -- and therefore welcomed by the U.S. women.

However, DiCicco said, his players have made it clear that they don't want him to treat them like men.

DiCicco, 50, said he believes female athletes should be trained and worked as hard as male athletes, but they should be managed differently. He said he tries to be sensitive of their feelings and relationships with their families, which the demands of international soccer sometimes strain.

"We are different," U.S. midfielder Tisha Venturini said. "We don't see it as sexist. It works. We appreciate that. We don't want to be treated like guys."

In 1991, his first year as an assistant coach with the women's national team, DiCicco learned his first lesson about communication with female players. After a loss, DiCicco commented during a meeting on mistakes made by two players. Later, he said, he found out that those players had taken his comments to mean that they were to blame for the defeat.

"That can work on a men's team, because you are dealing with egos so much more, but that doesn't work on a women's team," DiCicco said. "There have been times that I have been more critical than I should have been. You learn from that. You find out that isn't the way to inspire women. The way is to create a relationship with them that they trust, and together set standards to reach, and help them meet those standards. If you just get on the critical side of it, they don't respond."

DiCicco also said he tries to take a personal interest in each player, learning about their interests, families and lives away from the field.

"There is so much more to them than just being players," DiCicco said. "Guys love identifying themselves as just a player. Don't ask me to explain that. Maybe [women] are just higher Homo sapiens."

DiCicco said he believes women don't respond well to more than a month away from their families. Seven players on the team are married and two have children. DiCicco said women, in contrast to men, would sooner sever their ties with the team than strain those relationships. DiCicco said he therefore avoids five- or six-week stretches in training camp, or on the road. He gave his players a full week off just two weeks before the Women's World Cup began. After their break, they reconvened on June 13, almost exactly one month before the event's conclusion.

"With women, what's important to them is being happy, and with their families," Lilly said. "I think he's learned that."

For years, the U.S. women's players have had to fight for recognition and other benefits routinely accorded male players. Even now, they are still not paid the same. The U.S. women's players will earn individual bonuses of $12,500 if they win the championship Saturday, compared with the nearly $400,000 each the U.S. men's players would have received from the U.S. Soccer Federation if they had won the 1998 men's World Cup.

But the American players, who won the first Women's World Cup in 1991, are Title IX babies. They were the first generation to benefit from the 1972 law that prevents sex discrimination in athletic programs at federally funded institutions. So although their path has not been easy, the U.S. players have benefited from one major advantage their mothers lacked: the opportunity to play organized sports at every educational level.

"Just because of our country, and the way we were brought up and socialized, we expect it to be equal with the men," U.S. defender Joy Fawcett said.

Yet the U.S. national team players are comfortable with the idea of a certain amount of unequal treatment. They subscribe to John Gray's somewhat controversial Mars and Venus theory. "Tony's really in tune with how we feel," goalkeeper Briana Scurry said. "You have to deal with a more emotional side for women. You can't be a tyrant, for example, and Tony is far from that. Women don't respond well to that. We take things personally.

"He's found a good way to convey what he wants us to do, but not to the point of being harsh, which would make people shut down. He's bridged the gap very well."

A 1970 graduate of Springfield (Mass.) College, DiCicco played for the U.S. men's national team in 1973 and played five years of professional soccer in the American Soccer League.

DiCicco, who is married and has four sons, assumed the head coaching position in 1994, with the backing of former national team coach Anson Dorrance. Under his direction, the U.S. team suffered a crushing upset loss to Norway in the semifinals of the 1995 Women's World Cup in Sweden. But the team rebounded the following year to win the first Olympic gold medal awarded in women's soccer.

When DiCicco took over for Dorrance, a legendary college coach at the University of North Carolina, DiCicco feared making major changes to what was an established and successful U.S. team. It wasn't until after the 1995 Women's World Cup that DiCicco began making personnel changes and other moves. Players say DiCicco retained many of Dorrance's philosophies but brought a different personal style.

"Anson was more measured, more aristocratic, more aloof and more cerebral," U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers said. "What I admire about Tony is his heart. I really appreciate his commitment and his desire to give his best to the team. . . . He's more blue collar, more from-the-heart stuff."

The mere fact that DiCicco is coaching the powerful U.S. team would disturb some supporters of women's athletics. Men coaching women's teams has been a controversial issue for some since the NCAA took over women's college programs from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 1981. Before then, women held about 90 percent of the women's collegiate head coaching positions. After, when coaching women's teams became financially rewarding, many more men got involved.

DiCicco's success, however, cannot be questioned. He has a 98-8-7 record and more victories than any other U.S. women's national team coach. The U.S. women's team likely will remain intact through the 2000 Olympics in Sydney -- with DiCicco as its head.

And that seems to be more than satisfactory to the U.S. players.

"He's almost like a father figure," Venturini said. "Look at Tony. You almost want to hug him. He's just a nice, nice guy."

CAPTION: Tony DiCicco's players say the U.S. coach is in tune to their needs.

CAPTION: U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said his players have made it clear that they don't want him to treat them like men. "We are different," said Tisha Venturini.