Devout followers of women's soccer have been greedily anticipating the day Aleisha Cramer and Aly Wagner - the American wunderkinds, revered already in their early teens - would be paired together, doing remarkable things, no doubt, in the center of the U.S. national team's midfield.
That day seemed nigh when 2002 began, but there's no sense in waiting anymore. Cramer - or Cramer-Rose, since her July wedding to Chris Rose - is finished with top-level soccer, and she couldn't be happier.
The 20-year-old Brigham Young University star, who is Mormon, can no longer reconcile playing on Sundays with her religious beliefs. Since Sunday play is common at the international level and in the WUSA, she has decided she'll not participate in either.
''[Playing on Sundays is] pretty much the thing holding me back,'' said Cramer-Rose, a consummate playmaking defensive midfielder, who made her international debut at 16. ''I don't want to lower my standards. If you believe in something, you don't want to compromise.
''It's really hard, because I love playing for the national team. ... It'd be great if I could, but I don't know if it's realistic because I won't play on Sunday [and] I don't think it's fair to the team if we have a big game and I have to say, 'I'm sorry, I can't play.' ''
Deep soul-searching - product of concerns about a lack of balance in her life, and the importance of her beliefs - led her in January, while with the U.S. women at the Four-Nations exhibition tournament in China, onto another path, one that didn't revolve around soccer.
It was, she acknowledged, a spiritual decision.
''Before I was in China, before that trip, I never thought I'd make that decision ...,'' she said. ''It was such a strong feeling like I'd never had before. I never knew prayers could be answered like that.''
U.S. coach April Heinrichs, who first encountered Cramer-Rose as coach of the U-16 team, admitted the ''immediate sense of loss and disappointment [was] tremendous.'' She's been among Cramer-Rose's strongest supporters.
''She's a young woman who has her entire life in front of her,'' Heinrichs said. ''I think she's been extremely committed and made tremendous sacrifices in her life to pursue soccer. ... Some things she expressed to me is a sense of longing for a normal life, a sense of missing what it means to be a young girl and have a social life. ... I think the most important thing for me is to try to support players in their decisions. If Aleisha's happy and loves what she's doing, I'll be happy for her.''
Cramer-Rose said she's happier than she's ever been. She loves married life - ''I honestly didn't think I'd be married at 20,'' she said, ''but I found the right guy'' - and enjoys her studies at BYU. She just declared her major, therapeutic recreation, and hopes after graduation to work with the elderly or children with disabilities.
She's off to another strong start with BYU's soccer team, which is favored to win its fourth successive Mountain West Conference championship. Her religion is important to her. And her life makes better sense.
It's soccer's loss. Cramer-Rose is a sensational player, tall - 5-foot-11 - and blessed with superior vision, instincts, touch and intelligence. ''She does the simple things real well,'' said BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood, ''and she makes the difficult things look simple.''
Such abilities tagged her for stardom early, and there was a buzz about her in soccer circles before she made her first full national team appearance, in December 1998. Only Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly were younger debutants. WUSA coaches would likely have made her the No. 1 draft selection in 2004 - earlier if she'd left BYU before her eligibility ran out.
The door to soccer stardom will remain open to Cramer-Rose for several more years. She could, she admitted, change her mind at some point, although more likely is she'll restrict her involvement in soccer to coaching her children and playing in recreational leagues.
''There's different feelings,'' she said, trying to describe hers. ''Because of the Sunday thing, I pretty much think [playing at the top level is] impossible. ... I've kind of come to terms with that. I know I'm not going to play in the WUSA or with the national team, but, it's one of the best decisions I've made.''
It's all about ''finding more balance,'' she said, ''being able to enjoy soccer, be married and go to school. ... I think - and part of this was my fault - growing up it was all soccer. That's all I ever did. I didn't know how to have fun any other way, and I don't think that's healthy for anyone. I made probably some poor decisions that helped me not have a balanced life. ...
''It was such a huge decision, obviously something I couldn't make without thinking through what the consequences were. I really can honestly say I never think I'll regret the decision. Because I'm a happier person, you know?
''Sure, it'd be so awesome to be like Mia Hamm or Michelle Akers and represent your country - I loved those things. ... I guess my standards are more important to me than being Mia Hamm. I'd rather follow what I believe. When you do what you feel is right, you have a peaceful feeling. Everybody knows what's right for them. That's when they have a peaceful feeling, too.''
by Soccer America Senior Editor Scott French