OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer will never forget her first professional film session. It was 2019, and she was at the player apartment complex in Tacoma under former Reign (and current U.S. women’s national team) head coach Vlatko Andonovski.
Balcer had just beaten incredibly long odds, making the Reign roster after a strong preseason as a non-roster invitee. She had gone undrafted in the NWSL following an exceptional career at NAIA program Spring Arbor University.
“I knew nobody, and I walked in and just sat in the back,” she says, recalling how she then struck up a conversation with longtime Reign defender Lauren Barnes.
Barnes also remembers meeting Balcer for the first time.
“I heard about Beth before coming in, and how unique — or not even unique — her story is, just like different,” she says. ”She didn’t go to a major DI college.”
A player making an NWSL roster without ever playing Division I soccer was incredibly rare at the time, and still is today. Balcer broke the mold that season, winning Rookie of the Year after scoring six goals and registering two assists while playing in every single one of the Reign’s regular season matches.
“I was really excited,” Barnes says of hearing about Balcer’s background. “Because I think stories like that, for one, give hope for the growth of women’s soccer.”
Balcer’s story is well-woven into NWSL history at this point, but her next act might be even more impressive. Known affectionately to teammates and fans as “Boats,” in a reference to the size of her feet, Balcer is now a consistent starter for the 2022 NWSL Shield champions. Immediately recognizable by her signature headband as she scores off towering headers, Balcer has shown both the continued ability to score goals and an underrated playmaking ability.
“I think my first two or three years in the league, I really struggled to truly understand that I belonged,” she says. “Because I said all the time I didn’t want to be a one-year wonder, like I just had this year and then fell off the face of the earth and couldn’t follow it up with a good second season.”
Far from a one-season wonder, Balcer is now the fourth-longest tenured player on the Reign roster. Her only predecessors still playing for Seattle are Barnes, Megan Rapinoe and Jessica Fishlock, who have all been with the club since the NWSL’s inaugural year in 2013. Balcer idolized that trio early on and still looks up to them today.
“I still think of her as like my little one coming in, but I kind of laugh now,” says Barnes. “She’s been here for five years, so she’s been here almost half of my career at that rate. So, she’s kind of paving the same path that our OGs have done for ourselves.”
Among the Reign veterans’ big personalities, Balcer’s confidence on the field has coincided with her clear desire to be a leader in the locker room. She didn’t get a chance to build on her rookie season in routine fashion in 2020, when the NWSL regular season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recast as the one-month Challenge Cup.
The next year came with its own upheaval, as former Reign manager Farid Benstiti resigned for reasons that were later identified as excessive weight-shaming. Original head coach Laura Harvey returned to the team mid-season, and her management has directly correlated with Balcer and her teammates easing into their current roles.
Outside of the tumultuous circumstances beyond Balcer’s control, the 26-year-old has always been open about her journey with mental health, including when she suffered a panic attack during the 2020 Challenge Cup. She now feels that her openness is an important part of the way she navigates being a public figure.
“I’ll never forget the first time I really shared about it,” she says. “The response I got was so overwhelmingly positive, and I was actually shocked because I was like, oh, this really is like a taboo topic. And this really is something that just never gets discussed.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re ever alone, or anyone to think that I have it all together just because I play professional soccer and I’m playing well. Like that’s not the case at all. I think I just really tried to see my current career in terms of a whole life perspective.”
Balcer says she has a love-hate relationship with social media, a tool that athletes in women’s sports use to raise awareness and market themselves, but also can give a skewed representation of reality. Balcer famously called out the NWSL for the Chipotle gift card she received for winning Rookie of the Year in 2019, pushing for better bonuses for NWSL athletes that perform well during the regular season. Her honesty in that moment also went against overly curated messages of false positivity, a position Balcer takes intentionally on social media.
why is equal pay important? i got a $50 gift card to chipotle for winning rookie of the year in 2019. that's it. we need a CBA in this league and we need to move forward, not backwards— Bethany Balcer (@bethanybalcer) September 21, 2021
why is equal pay important? i got a $50 gift card to chipotle for winning rookie of the year in 2019. that's it. we need a CBA in this league and we need to move forward, not backwards
“I want people to know the real Bethany 100% when I’m not on the field,” she says. “Because that’s just 90 minutes that people see, when there’s so many more minutes and hours and days in the year that I’m existing just like anybody else. So, I think it’s just really normalizing and making my experience, I guess, more human to everybody else.”
The way Balcer carries herself hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“She’s definitely one of our leaders now on the team, she’s well respected in the locker room, and she performs,” Barnes says. “You have all those three things that really gain trust and respect from your coaches, your coaching staff, your players, and then be able to also teach the next generation.”
Balcer’s confidence off the field has positively influenced her role on the Reign. In the NWSL, she’s played both on the wing and as a central forward. Recently, she’s also sat back as a playmaker in the absence of Rose Lavelle, who’s been dealing with a leg injury since mid-April. The position isn’t completely unfamiliar — Balcer played attacking midfield throughout her college career and has natural goal-scoring instincts.
“She probably doesn’t even know this, but as a younger player, senior players like myself, I’m like, ‘We need to get the ball to Beth, like she will score goals for us,’” says Barnes. “She’s definitely one that has to take on that pressure now, and I think she’s done it so gracefully, and passionately.”
When Balcer is at her best, the rest of the team follows, as seen in the Reign’s 2-1 win over the San Diego Wave on Saturday. Balcer scored two goals with her head to give the Reign all three points. Her 11 header goals since the beginning of 2021 are five more than any other player in the NWSL, according to Opta.
Another header from Bethany Balcer! 💥OL Reign are back ahead, can they keep their lead? 👀 pic.twitter.com/Uqs0eM2XN1— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) June 25, 2023
Another header from Bethany Balcer! 💥OL Reign are back ahead, can they keep their lead? 👀 pic.twitter.com/Uqs0eM2XN1
The Reign play a free-flowing, creative style of soccer that allows players the freedom to be their best selves. While the system might sacrifice a clear scoring outlet, the closer Balcer is to goal, the better the team’s odds are of coming out on top.
“We don’t just have one person who’s leading the charge,” Balcer says. “Every single person plays a pivotal role, and that’s seen in our team goals. But then there’s some nitty gritty goals that just come out of nothing, which is a really good quality to have, too.”
It’s no accident that Balcer does well in a number of roles given her unique background.
“I feel like I’m not your typical player,” she says. “Unorthodox, I think that’s the word. I think that’s my kryptonite.
“I obviously made it into this league in the craziest of ways, and that is still a shock to me sometimes. But there was something special about me that my coaches at the time told me to let them see, and I feel like that’s what got me here, and that’s what’s gonna sustain me throughout my entire career.”
Balcer’s ambitions go beyond her already-decorated club career; she’s participated in camps with the U.S. women’s national team and still has a desire to represent the national team at a major tournament someday. But for Balcer to pick up the mantle of leading the club in the years after Barnes, Rapinoe and Fishlock would create a legacy of its own.
“I think for a club to be successful year in and year out, that it’s not necessarily just players you bring in, but it’s a legacy you leave,” Barnes says. “I hope she outplays me, Pinoe and Jess by a decade.”
Despite three NWSL Shield-winning seasons — an accomplishment any Reign player will tell you is the most difficult in American women’s soccer — the club is still searching for its first NWSL Championship to send the original trio out on a high note. But for Barnes, seeing players like Balcer grow and succeed has re-introduced a love of the game that goes far beyond wins and losses.
“There does come a point in our career where you’re gonna obviously hang up the boots,” she says. “But sometimes you feel like you can’t do that until someone’s taking your position.”
Barnes considers Balcer to be the new face of the Reign, while the striker herself embraces being the conduit toward the next generation of Seattle stars.
“I’ve been like a sponge,” Balcer says. “Just continuing to absorb everything that’s around me from the older vets than me, and then just using that to help out the younger kids.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.