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How Bethany Balcer became the NWSL’s most unorthodox star

(Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

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.”

Balcer's 11 header goals since the beginning of 2021 are the most in the NWSL. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

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.

“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.

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.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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