Shine On: Balcer Looks to Continue Rookie Season Success
What stands out most about Bethany Balcer’s path to the NWSL is just how atypical it is. Before she donned that Reign jersey, nothing about the 23-year-old forward’s background would have led anyone with football knowledge to believe she would end the season as the 2019 NWSL Rookie of the Year. In high school, Balcer didn’t play club ball, which is virtually unheard of for aspiring football stars in the United States. She played her collegiate footy at an NAIA school – Spring Arbor University – not for an NCAA Division I program. But there, at her small campus, she smashed the school’s scoring record and won two NAIA titles. Then, Balcer went undrafted in the 2019 NWSL Collegiate Draft. She was unknown; she should have been overlooked. Instead, then Reign assistant coach Milan Ivanovic convinced then Reign head coach (and current USWNT coach) Vlatko Andonovski to give Balcer a look.
She got an invite to a preseason camp. This proved to be the foot in the door that Balcer needed. She took things one step at a time, focusing on small successes. Then, she earned a supplemental contract, becoming the first NAIA player to sign in the NWSL. Finally, it was announced that Balcer had received a callup to the full squad the day before the team’s first match. Check that dream off the list. And as they say, the rest is history.
In that first match, Balcer was subbed on in the waning minutes of what would end as a tie to the Houston Dash. By the following match, she had worked her way into the starting lineup. She scored her first professional goal in that game, as the Reign drew against the Pride. By the time the 2019 season ended, Balcer had seen minutes in all 25 of the Reign’s games, including their playoff loss to eventual champion North Carolina Courage. She started 20 of those games. She finished the season with six goals and two assists. Not bad for a kid from an unheard of NAIA school. Oh, and, no big deal, she just earned herself a call-up for Andonovski’s identification camp with the National Team.
Set up incremental goals. Knock them down. Dream big, always.
In 2019, Balcer was more than numbers for the Reign. She brought a youthful energy to the team, a spark, if you will. And she provided healthy legs for the most injury-prone side in the league last year. When the Reign lost Welsh standout Jess Fishlock to a season-ending knee injury, Balcer’s on-field prowess - even as a rookie – and versatility (she can play striker, winger, and under Andonovski, improved her defensive ability to win the ball back in the offensive third) would prove invaluable. Those intangibles helped her win 58% of the votes for ROTY at the end of the season.
During the unexpectedly long offseason, Balcer worked on her finesse in front of goal, her first touch, and improving the accuracy of her passes, all in the hopes of becoming a more technical striker. But she also used the time to focus on her mentality. Her faith is strong and plays an important role in her life. She showed fans her vulnerable side during the offseason with a blog post about how that faith has helped her shift the way she sees what she used to believe were her shortcomings. But she’s also a character. Her Twitter and TikTok content are quickly helping her become a fan-favorite. In a recent tweet, she wonders about what happened to a high school opponent who told her she would never amount to anything, because Balcer was only going to a NAIA school, not a Division 1 school like her online bully. On Tuesday, one of those two will be playing for last year’s NWSL Semifinalist. (Hint: it’s not the bully.)
Even at her young age, Balcer has found – and used – her voice. She’s called out ESPN for their lack of women’s sports coverage. She’s spoken out about racial injustice and white privilege at a time when many athletes have been hesitant to use their platforms for fear of saying the wrong thing. She’s real. She’s relatable. She’s almost unintentionally funny. Most importantly, she’s herself, and when she can be herself, she thrives.
Balcer was free to play during the 2019 season, especially mentally. Admittedly, she had no expectations going in, a benefit that comes with being unknown. That kept the nerves at bay; Balcer had nothing to lose. Will there be a sophomore slump? Will the stress get to her now that no opponent will allow her to fly under the radar? All signs point to Balcer being able to handle any added pressure she may feel at this year’s tournament. As it stands, many of the matches she played in last season had more fans in attendance than people in her hometown of Hudsonville, Michigan, and she did just fine. This undrafted, small-town kid led her team in goals, despite the Reign roster carrying nine National Teamers who were at the 2019 World Cup. She was the underdog story of the year in 2019; the 2020 Challenge Cup will give her another chance to shine.
By Nikki Flores