With a sudden change of mind that caught both his Women's World Cup champion players and the U.S. Soccer Federation off guard, Tony DiCicco stepped down Tuesday night from the helm of the U.S. women's national team.

DiCicco, the most successful coach in the history of the USSF, informed his players during a 30-minute early afternoon telephone conference call yesterday, saying that he couldn't put his wife and four sons through another year of heavy travel--even though the decision meant forgoing an attempt to win a second straight Olympic gold medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

"It's just too much travel," DiCicco said. "I can't balance it. . . . I wanted to be a world-class father more than a world-class coach."

DiCicco, 51, compiled a 103-8-8 record since taking over in 1994, leading the U.S. team to the 1996 Olympic gold medal, the 1999 Women's World Cup title and five straight U.S. Cup championships. Called the "Phil Jackson of soccer coaches" by USSF Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher, DiCicco emphasized team chemistry and a family atmosphere.

"I think some players were actually shocked; I think others knew it was coming," said Carla Overbeck, a U.S. team co-captain. "It is sad. People are going to miss him, and not just as a coach. He was a great friend and a great person."

DiCicco said he may remain affiliated with the U.S. women's team in an undetermined role, but that he also would explore other coaching and business opportunities.

Clive Charles, the longtime men's and women's coach at the University of Portland and assistant coach with the U.S. men's national team, immediately surfaced as a potential replacement candidate. Charles is well-known by national team members Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan, who played for him at Portland. Charles also coached the under-20 women's team from 1993 to '96.

Lauren Gregg and Jay Hoffman, assistant coaches for the U.S. women's team, also are likely to receive consideration. Bob Bradley, an assistant coach of the men's team and head coach of the Chicago Fire, also might be considered, as well as former U.S. team players such as April Heinrichs, the women's team coach at the University of Virginia.

DiCicco said he thought Gregg or Hoffman would be the best candidates because of their extensive knowledge of the U.S. team and the opposition. "Those two give us the best chance of winning next year," he said.

USSF General Manager Tom King said the search for a replacement would begin immediately.

DiCicco's decision marked an about-face from last week, when he said he planned to return provided a few contract details could be worked out. According to sources, DiCicco was offered a substantial contract by the USSF, possibly around $200,000. DiCicco declined to comment but he said financial issues were not involved in his decision.

DiCicco said he had decided before last summer's Women's World Cup that he would retire before the 2000 Olympics. But he said his ire was raised--and his mind changed--when USSF President Bob Contiguglia waited until September to ask him to return, bypassing an opportunity to give DiCicco an immediate vote of confidence.

DiCicco said he believed the acrimonious contract dispute between the Women's World Cup champion players and the USSF following the Women's World Cup spilled over to the coaching staff. "At some level, I think the coaching staff and I became the scapegoat for those breakdowns, even though we had nothing to do with all that," DiCicco said.

Because of the perceived snub, DiCicco said, he became determined to return to the team, despite the family hardship. DiCicco, though, said he was shaken back to reality by his 8-year-old son Nicholas, who asked him last week if he was "going to keep coaching or be my dad," DiCicco said.