By her own admission, Lehigh Valley native Gina Lewandowski had all but given up on any chance of joining the U.S. women's national team. At 30 years old, she figured her time had passed - especially with a new generation of young stars starting to finally crack coach Jill Ellis' lineup.
Yet a few weeks ago, her dream finally came true. was invited to join the team for its two recent games against Brazil, and earned an appearance as a substitute in the Americans' 3-1 win on Oct. 25 at Orlando's Citrus Bowl.
"It's an honor to be called up and play with the team for the week - they're the best of the best," Lewandowski told me in an exclusive interview. "I was a bit surprised at first, and excited that I was to have that chance… My hopes were sort of gone."
If it was surprising, it wasn't entirely out of line in a career that has taken many unconventional paths.
Lewandowski grew up in Coopersburg, Pa., about halfway between Quakertown and Bethlehem. She chose to stay close to home for college, picking Lehigh instead of going farther afield to a higher-profile program.
When she graduated in 2007, there was no pro women's league operating in the U.S., so she used a connection through relatives in Germany to try out for leading women's club FFC Frankfurt. The scouts liked what they saw, and signed her up.
A few weeks after Lewandowski's move, Frankfurt signed another American: future U.S. national team star Ali Krieger. The two became fast friends, and together became the first Americans to ever win the UEFA Women's Champions League in 2008.
"When she came, it was like having a little bit of home there," Lewandowski said. "For both of us it was a huge advantage, because we could speak English together, and sort of go through the experience together and not alone, which was great support for each other."
In the spring of 2011, Lewandowski's contract with Frankfurt ended. Because there was a women's league in the United States at the time, Women's Professional Soccer, she came back to America and signed with the Western New York Flash.
You might not have noticed her on a team that also included Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, Marta and Caroline Seger, but she played eight games that year and the Flash ultimately won the WPS championship (beating the Philadelphia Independence in the title game).
The victory high didn't last long. In part because WPS was facing an uncertain future - remember the magicJack scandal? - Lewandowski decided to return to Frankfurt for the 2011-12 European season, signing a one-year contract.
In May of 2012, Lewandowski got her first ever U.S. national team callup from then-coach Pia Sundhage. But Frankfurt didn't let her go. The club was in the midst of a race for a place in the following season's UEFA Women's Champions League, and that callup wasn't for a game during a FIFA-recognized international window. Yes, they exist in women's soccer just as they do in men's soccer.
Frankfurt ultimately came up just short. After Lewandowski's contract expired, she looked to come back to the U.S., but by then WPS had gone under. So she looked at other leagues, but Bayern reached out to her and she liked their offer. She moved to Munich on a free transfer, and has been there ever since.
Bayern is one of global soccer's biggest names, but its women's team isn't as famous as its men's team. In the last few years, though, the women have gotten more resources and exposure.
"Obviously the men's side is super-profitable, and they're one of the best teams in the world," Lewandowski said. "To be part of it on the women's side is an honor… There's a lot of opportunity to grow on the women's side. "
Those efforts were rewarded this past spring, when Bayern won the Frauen-Bundesliga for the first time since 1976. Lewandowski helped marshal the defense, and the attack was led by two forwards who went on to star at this summer's World Cup: Japan's Mana Iwabuchi and the Netherlands' Vivianne Mediema.
All three players are back to defend the title, and they're joined by another marquee name in Spanish playmaker Véronica Boquete. It is a clear sign of the investment Bayern has made.
"We started to get successful and the men's side saw that, and we gained a little more respect from the program," Lewandowski said. "It's definitely a positive thing right now, where the women are gaining more respect and attention."
In addition to gaining respect from the rest of Bayern, Lewandowski has gained respect from the U.S. national team too. That culminated in last month's summons, which happened to come at an ideal time. With veteran stars Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Lori Chalupny and Shannon Boxx all retiring this year, Lewandowski has a shot to be part of the next wave.
It may be a slim shot, because of her age and the fact that the roster for next summer's Olympics is limited to 18 players. But Ellis has made it clear that she's ready to bring new names into the national team - including players not based in the NWSL.
Lewandowski is proof of that. So is 21-year-old Paris Saint-Germain attacker Lindsay Horan, who didn't just pass over the NWSL, but a scholarship offer from the University of North Carolina too. Ellis called Horan up for the Brazil series, and put her in the starting lineup as a withdrawn forward.
In a New York Times profile of Horan last year, Ellis made headlines of her own by admitting that it would be "challenging" for Horan to get into the national team if she stayed in Europe instead of "being able to come in to all of our events." Ellis also said she told a current unnamed national team player that she would need "to see" that player "all the time."
I asked Lewandowski whether it truly was harder to get on the national team's radar from Europe. Her answer left no doubt.
"It is harder when you're across the world and you're not playing in a league where you can be seen every day, [or] playing against the girls who are actually on the national team," she said. "Maybe they don't know the level that's being played over there - you see a player who's doing well, but if you don't see them performing live, or see a game live, then it's hard to judge if the league or the player is good."
This month, Lewandowski finally got her shot. And as the nation saw when she took the field against Brazil, she made the most of it.
"It's always exciting to get an opportunity to get into a camp, to get into training, to get into a game, to earn your first cap," she said. "Reaching that level, getting that experience - even if it's just one time, or even just a training and not a game, even if I didn't make it further, it's still a great experience to be here for a week. I think I can take a lot from it, and take it back to Munich, or wherever I go."
That "wherever I go" line wasn't a throwaway remark. With the NWSL on a more solid footing than WPS was, Lewandowski has given some thought to coming home.
"It's always a thought of mine," she said. "I just sort of take one year at a time to see where things are at, where I'm at, where the team's at, where the league is at in the States. I'm definitely open to it if the timing is right."
To be clear, Lewandowski is happy where she is now. She isn't trying to land in anyone's transfer gossip column, not least because there are still goals to achieve at Bayern, including winning the Champions League. The club has never made it past the round of 16. And despite the club's star power, it won't happen this season. Bayern was knocked out in the Round of 32 last month.
Lewandowski has crossed one noteworthy item off her checklist, though. Last week, she finally got to meet the Bayern men's player with whom she shares a last name: superstar striker Robert. The club arranged a video shoot in which they chatted about life on the soccer field and their shared Polish roots.
As far as Gina knows, they are not related - though she said she gets asked by fans "fairly often."
Would the video have happened if Gina hadn't made the U.S. national team? Perhaps eventually, but her newfound publicity had to help.
This much we can be sure of: Lewandowski finally has validation for taking a unique path from a small Lehigh Valley town to the biggest sport in the world.