The start of the race for a berth in the 2002 men's World Cup began yesterday with a record 198 countries taking part in the qualifying draw in Tokyo. But as far as the U.S. Soccer Federation was concerned, the bigger news came prior to the draw when FIFA President Joseph Blatter announced that the next Women's World Cup will be held a year earlier than planned, also in 2002.

With a strong possibility that its men's and women's national teams could play in world championships within a few months of each other, the fiscally conscious USSF could face an unprecedented financial strain.

"This would definitely affect us more than any other country," USSF spokesman Jim Moorhouse said from Chicago. "Most other countries don't have a 50-50 breakdown between their men's and women's programs. We try to do that as much as possible, but this could be a problem for us in terms of committing resources and money."

Meantime, the USSF apparently has narrowed its list of finalists for the vacant women's coaching job to assistants Lauren Gregg and Jay Hoffman, men's Olympic coach Clive Charles and USSF Director of Coaching Bobby Howe.

According to sources, those four will be interviewed by USSF President Bob Contiguglia and others in Denver on Dec. 16-17. A decision is expected by the end of the month to name a successor to Tony DiCicco, who guided the United States to the Women's World Cup title last summer before resigning recently to spend more time with his family.

The U.S. players will return to training in January in preparation for the Olympic Games in Sydney next year. They were planning for the next Women's World Cup in 2003, but with Blatter's surprising announcement, it now appears they will have to alter slightly their youth and developmental strategy. Australia is the leading candidate to host the next tournament.

"We want to give more exposure to women's football" by playing in the same year as the men's event, Blatter said. The new schedule also will make it possible for women's teams to compete in separate qualifying tournaments for the 2004 Olympics in Athens; for the Sydney Games, the top seven finishers from the 1999 Women's World Cup, plus Australia, were chosen.

Blatter also said that the Olympic women's field will be expanded to 12, from eight, beginning in 2004.

As for the main event yesterday, all but five of FIFA's 203 member nations are entered in a qualifying process that will run from March 2000 until November 2001. For the 1998 World Cup, 174 countries competed in qualifying play.

The 2002 World Cup will be played in Japan and South Korea. The national teams of those countries, as well as defending champion France, received automatic berths in the 32-team tournament.

The U.S. team, coached by Fairfax's Bruce Arena, will not begin qualifying play until next fall against teams to be decided over the next year. The United States and Mexico are the favorites in CONCACAF, the region comprising North and Central America and the Caribbean, which will send three teams to the next World Cup.

The most intriguing regional draw was Europe, with 50 teams divided into nine groups. Historic rivals Germany and England were placed in Group 9, along with Greece, Finland and Albania.