The discovery of Minnesotan soccer phenom Maddie Dahlien dated back to a chance encounter in the summer of 2019, thousands of miles away. Damon Nahas was a North Carolina assistant then, ready to leave after a long day of scouting elite prospects at the San Diego Polo Fields.

Maddie made him stay five more minutes.

The 14-year-old sped past his periphery, in a uniform that he did not recognize. So he sat down, picked up his program and found the club in question: Minnesota Thunder Academy. He'd never heard of it, or her.

A summer later, Dahlien became only the second Minnesotan to pledge the Tar Heels since the turn of the century.

Maddie Dahlien went from unknown to undeniable.

As the U.S. women's national team seeks its third consecutive World Cup win, the roster again includes no Minnesota players. Legendary goalkeeper Brianna Scurry was the state's last representative, who earned 173 international caps from 1994-2008.

Dahlien, 18, is Minnesota's best candidate to snap that streak.

"Coming from Minnesota, coming from [a] really unknown soccer state has just pushed me to continue to work even harder," she said.

Dahlien spent the earlier parts of her summer with the under-20 national team in the Dominican Republic, where the U.S. lost to Mexico 2-1 in a tightly contested CONCACAF Women's Championship final. She started despite her youth, which was hardly recognizable when she scored a hat trick in her first-ever international start against Jamaica. Dahlien didn't play at all in the match prior.

She just waited for her opportunity to shine, as she's always done.

And to think, her name wasn't on the U-20 national team's radar until Nahas had a conversation with coach Tracey Kevins ahead of the last training camp for CONCACAF roster hopefuls. One of the sites just so happened to be hosted by North Carolina, a historic program that added an NCAA runner-up finish to its resume in Dahlien's first season.

She appeared in all 26 games and started five, with four goals and three assists as part of an All-ACC freshman campaign that also included the two goals she netted to secure a critical 3-2 win over BYU in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

"People get overlooked and people don't get seen and you never know how that goes," Nahas said. "But her talent and what she's done basically forced me to call to kind of recommend it."

Dahlien's four CONCACAF goals tied fellow Tar Heels teammate Ally Sentnor for the team lead, as she moved one mark closer to her dream of playing for the senior national team.

"It's just funny because I do think we have a lot of great soccer players in Minnesota," Dahlien said. "We're just kind of in no man's land."

But she got noticed, and the added Minnesota exposure reflected especially well on friend and former Edina and MTA teammate, Izzy Engle. After Engle committed to Notre Dame during a junior season in which she earned first-team All-Metro honors for the first time, she received one of 23 spring invites to a U-17 national team camp held in North Carolina. The news was announced on May 29, just a few weeks after Dahlien made the U-20 team.

"[Maddie] is the type that coaches are like, 'Oh, OK, here you are: Let's look at who else is behind you,'" Edina High School coach Katie Aafedt said.

Dahlien's rise at Edina, which also included sprint titles in track, led to her being named 2022 Star Tribune High School Female Athlete of the Year. Before she entered that brighter spotlight, she watched MTA standouts Sophia Boman and Kaitlyn MacBean achieve high-level success without much notoriety outside of Minnesota.

Boman, the 2019 Star Tribune Girls' All-Metro Player of the Year, has since been named a second-team All-Big Ten selection in two of her three seasons at the University of Minnesota. And MacBean made the All-Big Ten freshman team with Penn State this past season after a season-ending injury sidelined her in 2021. But neither has national team experience.

To this day, Dahlien wonders why.

How did she imagine more for herself amid such odds?

"The thing that's crazy about her career so far is she never thought she could play at North Carolina," said Matt Dahlien, Maddie's dad. "That wasn't on her list. Her list was to play college soccer."

'Her story changed'

One of her earliest goals was to make varsity as a freshman and score. She's come a long way since then, thanks to "a village" of support, as her mom, Allison Peterson, put it.

Exhibit A: Ahead of Dahlien's freshman year of high school, she left the much smaller Edina Soccer Club to join MTA — a move that longtime ESC and Wayzata High School coach Tony Pesznecker supported. It meant he would lose "possibly one of the best players that Minnesota has ever produced," but he knew she needed more to reach that level of recognition. MTA was the only Minnesota club that competed in the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which provided a launchpad for her recruitment to take off as a sophomore.

"I had coaches coming up to me in the middle of the game," said David Alberti, who coached Dahlien for three of her four MTA seasons. "... Through me, they could express their level of interest but it was insane. Absolutely insane."

Dahlien's play in that elite league didn't only alter her future in the eyes of top college programs. She started to see it, too.

"All of a sudden, North Carolina and Stanford and some Florida State coaches were writing her name down and this [other] coach that we know looked at his assistant and goes, 'Well, we just lost her,'" Matt said. "She'd always been this kid out of nowhere and then when that changed, her story changed in her mind."

Those at North Carolina fostered that narrative, just like alumnus Jena Kluegel told Dahlien they would in what she called a "fortuitous" conversation. Kluegel, a Mahtomedi native who notched 23 assists and three goals for the Tar Heels in 2000 as one of the nation's top midfielders, settled in Edina upon her return to Minnesota. There, the two were able to talk fit.

Once Dahlien arrived in Chapel Hill, there was no doubt. She belonged in Carolina blue.

"This is just the beginning for Maddie, and her success in the sport is something that we can all celebrate at home in Minnesota," said Kluegel, who went on to make 24 appearances with USWNT. "There will be some level of visibility to the state because of that. There has to be. She's earned that and she is a special talent."

North Carolina has a longstanding agility test that requires players to complete an M-shaped course lined by cones. No one in program history had broken 14 seconds.

Dahlien finished it in 13.81 seconds.

All Nahas could do was smile. He knew better than to expect anything less from the 18-year-old who appears primed to put Minnesota back on the USWNT board.

"I know now anytime a Minnesota team is out there from her club, I go to watch," Nahas said. "You just never know."