Fewer than 10 months from the start of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, 20 top players from the U.S. women's national soccer team--already lacking a head coach after the recent retirement of Tony DiCicco--have refused to play in an early January tournament in Australia because of a contract dispute with the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The entire squad of players that won the 1999 Women's World Cup--including Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and Briana Scurry--has removed itself from consideration for the trip to Melbourne and Adelaide and blamed the debacle on the USSF, with which it has long had a stormy financial relationship.

The players, through Philadelphia-based attorney John B. Langel, say the federation has failed to participate in meaningful contract negotiations since their previous deal expired after the Women's World Cup last summer. They say the USSF instead requested that they temporarily compete under 1996 contract terms.

"The last thing we wanted to do was what ended up happening," Hamm said yesterday. "[But] I don't know anybody that goes out and wins a world championship and they are actually offered less [money]. All of us as players felt we had moved beyond that point. . . . We felt if we accepted these terms, it would be a step backward."

USSF General Manager Tom King, who has been involved in negotiations on behalf of the federation, declined to discuss any specifics related to the contract talks but said the USSF would depart on Jan. 2 with a "B" team of 18 players for the Jan. 7-13 Australia Cup against the Czech Republic, Sweden and Australia.

"The 'A' team has elected not to accept our offer," King said. "We have an obligation to prepare for the Olympics, and we will take a team to Australia with a core of younger players."

USSF Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher did not return calls seeking comment.

U.S. assistant coaches Lauren Gregg and Jay Hoffman will share the coaching duties on that trip. King said the USSF was in the midst of interviewing candidates for the vacancy left by DiCicco's retirement in November. University of Portland men's and women's coach Clive Charles, who oversees the men's Olympic squad, and University of Virginia Coach April Heinrichs are believed to be the leading candidates to succeed DiCicco.

The Australia Cup was considered the kickoff for the U.S. team's Olympic training, which was intended to include participation in several tournaments and full-time residency in a camp in Florida or California beginning in March.

The players' last contract, signed in 1996, expired in July after the Women's World Cup victory. Eventually, Langel said, the USSF said it had been unable to come up with new numbers and asked that the players compete under the '96 terms until a new deal could be reached.

The 1996 agreement provided for $3,150 per month for the most experienced players plus about $250 per game. Langel said the players sought in a counterproposal $5,000 per player per month and an additional $2,000 per game for the 18 players selected for the Australia trip.

For the U.S. Women's Cup games this fall, each player received $5,000 per game as part of a deal reached immediately after the Women's World Cup. The U.S. players were elated with that package because they were, for the first time, paid on terms comparable with the U.S. men's players, who receive slightly more than $5,000 per victory.