She was the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League standout they never saw coming. Rookie of the Year, OL Reign attacker Bethany Balcer’s second pro season has played out amongst more background changes than anyone could have envisaged, but it is a role she is delighted to reprise.
She was a shining light in a season of desperately challenging circumstances for Reign FC (ahead of their rebrand by Olympique Lyonnais parent company OL Groupe). As the team lost one player after another to season-ending injuries in 2019, Bethany Balcer went from undrafted training invitee to leading goalscorer (6) and the only ever-present across 25 games.
The 23-year-old, who earned inclusion in a U.S. Women’s National Team Identification Camp late last year, made a scoring start to Reign’s Fall Series this past weekend, in a 2-2 draw from two goals down at Utah Royals. Her early story is full of firsts: first NAIA player to sign in the NWSL (and receive a USWNT call-up), scorer of the first Reign goal in their Tacoma home, the club’s first player to win Rookie of the Year, and so on.
2020 has been the second time around. The year itself has not exactly been a hospitable backdrop for a successful sequel, but imperfect circumstances have yielded pleasant surprises for the forward player in the past. Sometime before she came to prominence in the NWSL, in fact, as she recalls.
“I had actually gotten cut from volleyball my freshman year of high school, and so I still wanted to fill my time with something, and didn’t necessarily wanna play club soccer. My brother before me, he’s five years older than me, he did musicals, so I’d gone to some, and they were fun to be a part of.
“I decided to just audition and made it into the choir, and by my senior year, I ended up getting a lead. Just had so much fun doing that.
“It was over the course of my high-school tenure and it was a whole other world that I got to be a part of, that I never knew I would fall in love with.”
Her NWSL start effectively mirrored that, albeit in accelerated fashion: the audition (training with the Reign), to a place in the choir (the Reign roster), and ultimately, the lead (becoming top goalscorer and making the most appearances). She had initially been lined up for a short-term deal last season, with Vlatko Andonovski set to lose players during the World Cup, but with a spot opening up, she signed a full deal shortly before the season opener.
The former Spring Arbor University standout’s goals displayed both variety of skill and clarity of thought when the crucial moment arrived, and her Reign teammates’ delight for her was evident each time she got on the scoresheet. Those around her were of course critically important in her highly impressive debut year, but before any of the action begins, there are always a few other key elements to being ready to go out and do the business.
For Bethany, the pre-game moments with the headphones are valued, though interestingly, it is not always music that she is tapping into.
“I did have my own specific Reign pre-game playlist, and a lot of that was motivational speakers actually; pumping confidence into myself, because I think I really needed that as a rookie. I did that on my ride to the stadium, and then by the time I got in, maybe one or two more, but then I would listen to whatever the team was playing.”
In a year of NWSL play that has been nothing like we imagined going into 2020, the Fall Series to follow the summer’s Challenge Cup currently has rosters around the league looking somewhat altered. A huge part of that has been players (high profile and otherwise) taking up opportunities overseas.
One of those is Reign’s Darian Jenkins, who last month joined French side Bordeaux on loan. The 25-year-old is not just a significant attacking option, but also their most likely locker-room DJ. So, who has stepped into the figurative booth in her absence?
“I don’t know who’s gonna take hold of that aux but they’ve got big shoes to fill,” said Bethany. “It’s definitely not gonna be me!”
“My pump-up’s different to everyone else’s. Sofia Huerta took over a little bit in the Challenge Cup; she definitely set the tone, so maybe she’ll take it again.”
Bethany offers a glimpse into that alternative pump-up she alludes to.
“I definitely like more laid-back, I would say a chill vibe. Some of my favourite bands are LANY and The Band Camino, which a lot of people don’t necessarily know about.
“I’m that cliché person who says ‘oh, I listen to everything’ and I really do. I just feel whatever mood I’m in and I listen to pop, r&b, rap every once in a while.
“I like hearing new styles of music all the time.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) December 3, 2019
Switching back to the first single or album she remembers buying, unconventional it wasn’t on this occasion.
“I remember buying One Direction’s first album! That was probably early high school that I remember having that.
“I remember downloading things like Kelly Clarkson’s old stuff. Sean Kingston; I feel like he was big in the moment.
“Right in middle school was when Justin Bieber was coming out, so I definitely grew up on his old stuff, too.”
The Hudsonville, Michigan native current finds herself residing in an area that famously had its own renowned music scene (mainly in the pre-Bethany Balcer part of the 90s!). If she could see any act from all-time perform, Maroon 5 would be her top pick.
The subject of live shows also links in with a hugely substantial part of her life: her faith.
“I’ve been to a few. I’m a Christian so a lot of them have been faith and religious concerts, but I’ve been to a LANY concert, Ben Rector as well, who’s just got a more chill vibe.
“I was gonna go to Justin Bieber this summer, but with COVID, that all changed. Since being out here and settled, there’s bigger names that can come to Seattle than my home town, so I definitely want to get out and see more.”
The live music possibilities (when normality returns from its continuing hiatus) are of course not the only significant benefit of her Pacific Northwest ‘home from home’.
“We have it so well here. We’re in Tacoma, about 40 minutes south of Seattle, and we’re in these amazing apartments that are right along the water.
“If you just walk into our back yard, you can see three different mountain ranges, which is absolutely stunning; you can see Mount Rainier, you can see the Cascades, as well as the Olympic Mountains. Our team is always outside going on walks by the water; such a beautiful area.
“It has a ton of restaurants and things to do, so it’s a really prime location. We all live in the same complex, which is really great.”
It has long been suggested that a group of players that enjoys a bond away from the field will go above and beyond for one another in the most testing moments on it. In addition, coaches who can get players to unearth that additional belief – in themselves, in each other – are invaluable. Jason Crist at Spring Arbor was that for Bethany.
A three-time NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) Player of the Year, she won two national championships with the Cougars. They say a goal every two games is a great strike rate for a forward player – how about 1.3 per game? Bethany racked up 129 goals in her four collegiate seasons.
Making it to the pros without a Division I college is certainly the road less travelled, but there were so many aspects of Spring Arbor that struck a chord with Bethany outside of soccer, and Coach Crist convinced her that SAU could supplement her sporting ambitions all the same. In a school much smaller in student population than the famous names, she liked the tighter sense of community and not feeling like an unnoticed cog in the system.
There was also a memorable soundscape to her collegiate career with the Cougars.
“Yeah, music definitely was a big part. We had traditions in the locker room: we listened to three of the same songs before every single game, and everyone had a different solo part where there was a dance or singing.
“One of the three we always played was ‘Downtown’ by Macklemore (& Ryan Lewis). ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ (Journey), and we also played ‘Outta Your Mind’ by Lil Jon (featuring LMFAO) right before we went to warm up.
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“That always made our home games super fun, and even away games we were always playing music, always doing something. When we went on a longer away trip, we even did a lip sync, so definitely music was big for us.”
She is a self-described ‘dancer in the locker room’, but what about having to test those vocals – in front of an eager audience of peers?
“Yeah, we definitely did, even when I was just a recruit for college at Spring Arbor. If we lost a drill, we had to sing a song, chosen by the winning team, and that carried on through college a lot.
“So they definitely heard me sing; it wasn’t always my best!”
In a 2019 season where she had new defensive responsibilities to learn, as well as a mix of positions to shift between, Reign’s number 24 chipped in with a couple of assists to go with her half-dozen goals. On the theme of effective teamwork, if she had to choose one or more colleagues from her time in soccer so far to record a song cover with, one of her aforementioned fellow Reign forwards could expect a call.
“I’m thinking ‘who would I want in a music video doing a song with me?’ That would be someone like Sofia (Huerta), because I think the camera loves her!
“So I think she’d be super fun to do that with, and she has a great TikTok, if people don’t know that. (Which song would they cover?) Definitely like a pump-up, hype song; right now, I love the song ‘WHATS POPPIN’ (Jack Harlow).”
Back at Spring Arbor, Bethany actually had a year playing alongside her older sister Shannon. Born in Grand Rapids and raised in nearby Hudsonville, she has three other siblings, all brothers: Nick and Christian, who are older, and younger brother Grant.
Along with her Midwest origins, her surname is a clue to the significant European heritage she has.
“Yeah, Balcer’s Polish. My grandpa actually changed it; it was Balcerowicz, which is way more Polish!
“That’s my dad’s side, and then my mom’s side is Dutch.”
There was local success on a national scale to celebrate in 2017, as Bethany’s Grand Rapids FC won the pro-am United Women’s Soccer Championship, with her also finishing overall top scorer. The tournament featured the likes of renowned Venezuelan star Deyna Castellanos, ex-Canada defender Lauren Sesselmann, and Kodi Lavrusky, UCLA’s game-winning goalscorer in the 2013 College Cup final who didn’t go on to play pro.
Indeed everyone’s path is different, as Bethany continues to show with distinction, but an air of assurance has been clear to see in her burgeoning NWSL career. The ability to seemingly stop the clock under pressure is a distinguishing trait of the top performers. From the first-time finish she whipped into the far corner against Orlando Pride in her second pro game, to efforts like the neat turn in the box and deadeye strike to help beat Portland Thorns, Bethany seems to possess a vital dose of it.
Her first taste of national team recognition arrived with the Under-23s before the season was done, with a Nordic Tournament success in England to celebrate. The aforementioned introduction to the senior fold via the Identification Camp later followed, as outgoing Reign coach Vlatko Andonovski stepped into the USWNT hotseat.
Bethany considers the differences in managerial style between Andonovski and his successor, the former Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain coach Farid Benstiti.
“I think they’ve been pretty different, and it’s all based off the style of play that we chose, as well as our mentality each game. This year, I think it’s been a lot more about keeping possession, being efficient, being smart and not as rushed or hurried, whereas last year, with the predicament we were in, so many injuries, so many new players coming in, it was kind of like ‘we just gotta go out there and play with grit and hard work.’
“So it was more blue collar in that sense. I definitely can tell a difference, but I think the growth has still been there for all players.”
Also voted Players’ Rookie of the Year by the NWSL Players Association, Bethany was named in the league’s Second XI for 2019. Contributing to a team that reached the play-off semi-final, she describes what she feels gets the best from her when it comes to a coach’s approach.
“I definitely like when I’m able to play freely and add my own style to the game, but I also really appreciate feedback and the correction. I feel like I’m not too sensitive of a person, so I really like it when a coach can get into me, and I think that motivates me.
“I think it tells me that the coach knows that I have a higher ceiling that I’m not reaching. I’m always able to put that into perspective and use it, I think.”
— OL Reign (@OLReign) September 26, 2020
Of course, decades of coaching experience couldn’t have fully prepared anyone for the accompanying circumstances to this year’s NWSL Challenge Cup. As we spoke, Bethany said she was excited to go back to Utah (for Reign’s fixture last weekend) and not be quite as restricted, after a ‘very, very challenging’ few weeks there this summer, as participating teams were quarantined in an ‘NWSL village’.
Largely confined to their hotel, the subject of mental health for those involved – not only players but staff, camera crews and suchlike – became increasingly pertinent during the tournament. Bethany revealed after the Portland Thorns game, the last of the four-game preliminary round, that she had experienced difficulty breathing during play, as she had a panic attack.
She also described hitting ‘an emotional wall’ at that time in the tournament. In an already extraordinarily challenging year for so many, fans’ joy at being able to watch the NWSL again was tempered with the thought of the strain it was likely placing on those taking part.
Behind all the polished social media messaging we are now so accustomed to in the sport – ‘It’s game day!’, with players presented in an ultra-assured light – the reality behind it often isn’t so seamless. The Challenge Cup only amplified that for many.
“I don’t really think it was until that moment in the Portland game that I realised what I had been pushing aside, and I didn’t really know how much I was battling at the time,” Bethany recalled. “After that game, I took it a little more serious.”
“Our team did have things to do; we had yoga sessions, I think there was even some meditation in there, too. That’s what I ended up doing, like every morning, just sitting and sorting out your day by just focusing on your breathing and everything.
“I just think I didn’t know what to do with myself at the time, but after everything happened, I was able to seek out help and get really good advice. I think it’s been really beneficial for me.”
Even with that, she especially impressed when she notched the stoppage-time winner in game two against Utah Royals, with the black headband (but mostly Bethany…) converting Yuka Momiki’s cross. In a quarter-final round almost completely devoid of goals across the board, Reign were ultimately beaten 4-3 on penalties by eventual finalists Chicago Red Stars (Bethany scoring her kick in the shootout).
The year began with planning for a standard season in what is the NWSL’s eighth year, only to quickly switch to an extended period of isolation for players and staff alike, with all plans up in the air. Bethany recalls what the situation meant for her, as well as the imaginative way it was tackled.
“We were already here and had about three or four trainings before the next one was cancelled. It was a pretty strict lockdown; the only time I left was to go get groceries really.
“Other than that, it was staying in my apartment, trying to stay sane with my roommate. We were able to find good, creative ways to keep ourselves entertained.
“We went to the dollar store and bought random, random things. We bought a mini golf kit that just had a plastic ball and we ended up making a course in our house.
“We bought some puzzles, we took up drawing, we bought some plants to take care of; anything to put our time and focus into. It was a pretty hardcore lockdown; coming back from the Challenge Cup, it was definitely looser and we saw way more people.”
Bethany has been one to publicly step up, to share thoughts and show support for Black Lives Matter. In an overall sense, it has been a year surely unrivalled in modern times for the extended opportunity for introspection provided to so many.
Asked to what extent she has been reflecting in 2020 about what matters most to her, what she stands for, and ultimately, what she would like the coming years to look like in her life and career, Bethany confirms it has been a time of much thought.
“Yeah, I definitely have (been reflecting), and still wrestling with all of that. I think there’s so much I still have to learn, and I definitely wanna be educated on everything that’s going on in the world, as well as being well versed in the soccer world and continuing to take my game to the next level.
“I know I’m still so young, and the fact that I’m here now, it just excites me for the growth that I could have. I just wanna contribute to society, as well as this team, in whatever capacity that looks like.
“If I can find that and do it, I think I will be happy with myself and be able to grow along the way.”
On the field, her Reign will be encouraged if not with going 2-0 down last time out to Utah, then certainly with the comeback to take a point. They remain on the road, with an away game at Cascadia rivals Portland Thorns later this week.
Off the field, Bethany is not short on reasons for contentment, and she shares some more of what brings her good feeling, away from the gameday spotlight.
“Being out here in Washington, it is a beautiful state, so on any off-day, I try to get out and go somewhere I’ve never been. I’m surrounded by mountains, so I think getting out, clearing my mind, exploring this beautiful Earth that we live on, is something that definitely is good for my mind and something I really enjoy doing.
“I’ve really taken up drawing, so I just copy things I find; not the creative side yet, but I think that relaxes me. Anything that just gets me off my phone, the TV.
“I love crosswords as well, so I’ve been doing a lot of them.”
She has already demonstrated her stoppage-time scoring ability, and as we wrap up here, she has the final say again in the closing moments. As is customary on this site, we finish with the interviewee picturing a small-sided game, with four spots available on their team.
Selecting any teammates from their time in the game so far, the player is asked for some examples of those they know they would enjoy having in their line-up for this scenario. Over to you, BB…
“One would be my sister; I played with her at college for one year, so I know she would keep it fun. She played holding-mid.
“I would probably pick my good friend Jordan DiBiasi from the (Washington) Spirit; loved playing U23s with her, as well as Paige Monaghan from Sky Blue. All three of us got pretty close with the U23s, so I know they’d be fun.
“We’re all kind of in the same boat, trying to get on the national team, but still young and fired-up. I’d probably pick Casey Murphy from our team, the goalie; she always keeps things fun, and sometimes we need an extra body on the field, and she’s willing to step up.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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