One year ago, OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer put the NWSL on blast over Challenge Cup scheduling issues. One year later, she’s back at it.

The Seattle-based club once again has clinched the top seed heading into the tournament semifinals. But if OL Reign advance to the final, they would not be able to host, as the championship match is locked into a 12:30 p.m. ET start time on CBS — so 9:30 a.m. local time in Seattle.

Rather than force players into an early wake-up call, the NWSL instead would ask OL Reign to be the visiting team for the final, Balcer wrote Wednesday in her Instagram Story. OL Reign will host Racing Louisville at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday, then the winner will advance to face either the Kansas City Current or the North Carolina Courage in the championship.

“Screw CBS and put that game on YouTube for all I care,” Balcer wrote. “No wonder we struggle to get the exposure and views we want…because what the league is giving us is SHIT.”

As the outspoken 26-year-old star pointed out, such scheduling has been a recurring issue for the league. In the 2021 Challenge Cup, the Portland Thorns hosted the final at 10 a.m. local time. Then in the 2021 NWSL playoffs, the championship was scheduled for a 9 a.m. PT kickoff at Portland’s Providence Park, but the league moved the match to Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville after players voiced their discontent.

In the 2022 Challenge Cup, No. 1 seed OL Reign had to travel to the No. 4 seed Washington Spirit’s home stadium for the semifinal round due to scheduling conflicts at their own home field. And even if they had advanced to the final, the start time would have left them unable to host.

“It BLOWS my mind that we have had the Challenge Cup for three years and we still are making the same mistakes,” Balcer wrote Wednesday.

Perhaps due to these issues, the NWSL reportedly will not stage the Challenge Cup as a tournament in 2024.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results… well our league is looking pretty insane to me,” Balcer wrote. “Put the game on at 7 p.m. local time for whoever is the top seed. If that is too difficult, you aren’t in the right job and you don’t care about growing the women’s game.”

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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.”

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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.

OL Reign are leading the NWSL in goal celebrations, with players coming up with new and creative ways to take them to new heights.

Bethany Balcer scored the first two goals in Saturday’s 5-2 win against the Red Stars, and she didn’t disappoint. After the first, she ran to the Reign bench and chugged a cup of fake beer. After the second, she again went to the bench, but this time she used a set of headphones to play DJ, complete with record scratch.

Assistant coach Scott Parkinson helped with both goal celebrations, a trend Balcer plans to continue as the season goes on.

“Me and Scott decided we’re going to have a partnership this year on all the goals,” Balcer said. “When the league steps up their celebrations, we have to, too. And I feel like they’re so fun now. In the past, I’ve felt like, ‘Hoo, I scored a goal.’ But now I’m like, let’s have a little dance party before we go back, because it’s fun.”

Fellow Megan Rapinoe also provided an assist on the second celebration, entering the pitch to hand the headphones to Balcer — and earning herself a yellow card.

Jess ​Fishlock also scored two goals Saturday. After her viral chicken dance celebration in the team’s Challenge Cup opener last Wednesday, she followed that up with another dance, this one inspired by her nephew. He had seen Fishlock do the chicken dance and sent her choreography for her next goal.

Rapinoe, already a known goal celebrator, also got in on the action after her own tally in Saturday’s win. And she’s even inspiring other players, including USWNT teammate Alex Morgan, to join the fun.

“Pinoe always has the best celebrations,” Morgan said on the latest episode of Snacks. “And everyone else is just like, ‘Yayyyy!’ I need help. I need help from anyone and everyone.”

Megan Rapinoe was so determined to give OL Reign teammate Bethany Balcer an epic goal celebration that she got a yellow card for it.

After Balcer scored a brace in the 20th minute of Saturday’s match between the Reign and the Chicago Red Stars, Rapinoe entered the pitch from the sidelines to give Balcer headphones for a DJ celebration — earning her a yellow card. (Balcer’s celebration can be seen at the end of the video embedded below.)

Rapinoe subbed in at the start of the second half and went on to contribute a goal — and celebration — of her own in the Reign’s 5-2 win over the Red Stars.

OL Reign tied Racing Louisville FC 2-2 on Sunday in a game that featured yet another questionable officiating call.

OL Reign’s Tziarra King notched her first professional brace to put her team up 2-1 before the half. In the second, an own goal was credited to forward Bethany Balcer on a corner kick.

Per NWSL rules the ball must cross the line fully in order to be considered a goal. Following the game, Balcer says she asked the sideline referee about the play.

“I calmly went up to the sideline ref and asked him how he thought the ball crossed the line when I was blocking him from it,” she wrote on Twitter. “He said, ‘I’m very tall,’ to which I said it was still wrong. His response: ‘Yes I might’ve been wrong, but it’s just a goal.’”

After the game, captain Lu Barnes called on the NWSL to implement VAR in order to help correct calls, though she said she was “probably going to get fined for this.”

OL Reign coach Laura Harvey remained mum on the subject.

“I can’t talk about it anymore because I’ll get fined,” said Harvey. “I’m just beyond it.”

It isn’t the first time that a call has not gone OL Reign’s way in the last week. In the team’s Challenge Cup semifinal match, a no-call on an apparent Washington Spirit handball helped send the game to penalties, and the Spirit came out on top. At the time, Harvey called the no-call “embarrassing.”

“I just cannot get over that you can say someone’s arm is next to their body when they’re literally doing the f—ing robot man,” she said. “You’re joking me.”

The Reign, still looking for their first win, next play the Portland Thorns on Friday, while Louisville will take on the Houston Dash on Saturday.

OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon to call out the NWSL and CBS for the start time of the upcoming Challenge Cup final.

The group stage of the preseason tournament concludes this week, with the semifinals set for Wednesday, May 4, and the final for Saturday, May 7. But while the semifinals will start at 8 p.m. ET and 10 p.m. ET, the championship game will kick off at 1 p.m. ET.

“If you really cared about women’s sports you would actually put us at prime time,” Balcer tweeted at the NWSL and at CBS, which will televise the championship. “Thanks in advance!”

The location for this year’s knockout matches has not been set. Last year, the Portland Thorns finished with the best record in the group stage, which earned them the right to host Gotham FC in the final at Providence Park. The match started at 1 p.m. ET – so at 10 a.m. local time in Portland.

OL Reign became the first team to clinch a spot in the semifinals with its win Sunday against Angel City FC. If the Reign end up hosting the final at Lumen Field in Seattle, then the start time would again fall at 10 a.m. local time.

“I would love to see someone look into an NWSL player’s eyes and tell them they have to eat pregame meal between 6-7 a.m.,” Balcer tweeted.

The NWSL received criticism for scheduling an early West Coast kickoff for its championship last November. The title game was slated to begin at 9 a.m. PT at Providence Park, but players including Ashlyn Harris and Rachel Corsie voiced their discontent. The game was moved to Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, which put the kickoff at noon local time.

Balcer also expressed dismay that the Challenge Cup knockout stage overlaps with the regular season, which starts on April 29.

“Where is the COMMON SENSE,” Balcer tweeted. “Now your reward for making the Challenge Cup final is having to play three games in seven days… I cannot sit idly by as the well being of the player’s is put in jeopardy by bogus kickoff times and high physical demand. Let’s be better.”

OL Reign announced a number of moves on Wednesday, re-signing Megan Rapinoe, Bethany Balcer and Lauren Barnes.

Rapinoe has re-signed with the club on a one-year deal. The forward has been with the club since 2013 and is one of three original players remaining with the club. In total, she’s made nearly 90 appearances in the regular season for the Reign, scoring a club-high 40 regular season goals. During the 2021 season Rapinoe made 12 appearances, scoring six goals and tallying three assists.

A staple on the USWNT since 2006, she’s logged 187 appearances for the team, which includes two World Cup wins, an Olympic gold medal and an Olympic bronze.

“Megan joined our club in 2013 already a world-class talent, and over the last decade has done the work on and off the field to transform herself into a global icon who now transcends the sport,” said OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore. “Beyond the direct impact her talent and creativity bring to the team, her confidence and swagger is infectious—it makes every player around her better.”

Balcer also re-upped with the club on a three-year deal with a club option for an additional year. The 2021 season was Balcer’s best yet with the Reign, finishing as the club’s leading goal scorer and second in the race for the NWSL Golden Boot. Through 24 games, she scored nine total goals.

Balcer has been a member of the Reign since 2019. That year, she won NWSL Rookie of the Year after scoring six goals and adding two assists through 25 appearances.

“Bethany’s talent and tenacity has allowed her to exceed all expectations since her first day with the club. While she has consistently been one of the most impactful players in our squad and in the NWSL, we believe she has the opportunity and ability to achieve even more in her career,” said Predmore.

Barnes was the final deal announced by the club, a one-year deal with a one-year option. Like Rapinoe, Barnes has been with the club since its inaugural season in 2013.

A seasoned defender, Barnes made 22 appearances for the club during the 2021 seasons. She made 64 clearances, 40 interceptions and seven blocks throughout the season.

With the most appearances of any player for the Reign (183), she is just the second player in NWSL history to play in 150 regular season matches and the first to do so with a single club.

“Above and beyond her performances on the pitch, Lu has always embodied the values, spirit, and ambition of our club, and has been a driving force behind all we’ve strived to achieve on and off the field,” said Predmore. “I am excited that she’ll finally have the opportunity to play on the biggest stage our city has to offer.”

The club also announced on Wednesday that they had re-signed Rose Lavelle to a two-year deal.

As the NWSL Players Association continues to fight for the league’s first CBA, former Rookie of the Year and OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer has given some insight into the system.

“Why is equal pay important?” Balcer wrote on Twitter. “I got a $50 gift card to chipotle for winning rookie of the year in 2019. That’s it.”

She then revealed that the gift card was sent from the players association and not the league.

With the NWSL in the midst of a tumultuous season that has included multiple firings as well as questions over player safety, the calls for a CBA have only increased. The NWSLPA launched a No More Side Hustles campaign this season to highlight how much hasn’t changed from the league’s beginnings.

Bethany Balcer’s late-game equalizer helped OL Reign draw even with Racing Louisville 1-1 on Saturday night.

Nadia Nadim struck first, slotting home a long ball to put Louisville up 1-0 in the 23rd minute.

OL Reign didn’t respond until the 74th minute. Sofia Huerta sent a lofted cross into the box, where Balcer met it and headed it past the keeper.

With the goal, Balcer’s eighth in 10 starts this season, moved her to the top of the NWSL goal scorers list.

Next up: Racing Louisville will take on the Orlando Pride on Saturday. OL Reign will go on the road to face the Washington Spirit on Sept. 12.

Bethany Balcer struck early, becoming the difference maker for the OL Reign in their 1-0 win over the Houston Dash.

Balcer claimed her seventh goal of the season in the seventh minute, the only time anyone would score all game.

With the goal, the forward is now tied with Sydney Leroux, Ashley Hatch and Ifeoma Onumonu in the race for the Golden Boot. Just one back sits Lynn Williams, while four players have five goals apiece, including Balcer’s teammate, Megan Rapinoe.

Balcer has a chance to take the sole lead in the race when the Reign play Louisville on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET.