With over 71% of the vote, the Sounder at Heart Reign FC Newcomer of the Year is Bethany Balcer. The NAIA star — and NWSL Rookie of the Year — led the Reign in scoring this year, scoring 6 goals and assisting 2 others while playing 1,763 minutes.
Also receiving a notable number of votes were Reign FC MVP Casey Murphy (20%) and Ifeoma Onumonu (5%).
Balcer’s path to the NWSL is a unique one, although athletics are in her DNA.
Her mom was a three-sport athlete, and her dad was involved in sports. She also grew up with two older brothers, an older sister, and a younger brother — plenty of siblings to try to beat on any given day.
Still, despite the raw talent that was there, Balcer didn’t play club soccer in high school, which today feels like a necessity for any player wanting to make it onto a D1 college team and succeed as a professional. It wasn’t for a lack of talent, however. It was simply because she was interested in too many things.
“Once I got to high school, I invested my time in other things. I did musicals three years of high school, and that was during club soccer. And so I just wanted to, I guess, do more than just soccer,” Balcer shared in an interview with Ride of the Valkyries.
She also played basketball and, according to Balcer, loved it just as much as soccer. “I always liked whatever sport I was playing at the time, so during basketball season I was like, ‘Yeah, I love basketball,’ and then soccer would come and I’d be like, ‘Shoot, I love soccer too’.”
Even without club soccer, Balcer broke plenty of scoring records in high school. Still, an injury her sophomore year in high school — when many colleges begin scouting — meant that Balcer didn’t have a lot of schools knocking on her door. She also came from a small town, where athletes can often get overlooked. Hudsonville, Michigan has a population near 7,000. Known as “Michigan’s Salad Bowl” because of the diversity of crops grown in the area, the small town set a Guinness Record for the longest salad bar. A cross-town rivalry game in high school is called the “Salad City Classic.” Certainly, not a place that’s known for developing world-class athletes.
Spring Arbor University was one of the few colleges that showed interest in Balcer, in part because she had an older sister attending and playing soccer.
“My sister had gone there before me, so I was on campus frequently and I was visiting her, and it kind of just met every need that I wanted in a college — close to home, but not too close; it had a good soccer program; you know, things like that. So it just kind of checked everything off. And before you knew it, I was there,” Balcer said.
She was warned by her sister that she might not get a lot of playing time, and things were a lot tougher in college. What did she do? Balcer shattered nearly every offensive record possible. She finished her career with 129 goals, which more than doubled the previous record of 64, and led the Cougars to four straight NAIA national semifinal appearances, which included two national titles in 2015 and 2017, as well as a national runner-up finish in 2016.
After her record-breaking NAIA career with Spring Arbor University, Balcer again slid under the radar. No NAIA player had signed a professional contract in the NWSL before her, making her odds even tougher. She went undrafted in the 2019 NWSL College Draft. Fortunately for Balcer and Reign FC fans, the Reign coaching staff saw potential in the unknown player.
In fact, it was assistant coach Milan Ivanovic who initially identified Balcer as a target. The Reign FC coaching staff approached the draft by putting players into groups — known targets they wanted to acquire and promising players that they needed to explore in more detail.
Balcer fell in the latter category, and the research began. Vlatko Andonovski spoke to Balcer’s college coach and to Sounders Women coach Scott Ford, as Balcer was part of the 2018 WPSL championship-winning Sounders Women team — along with Celia Jimenez Delgado. It became clear pretty quickly that Balcer was a budding talent who could blossom in a professional environment.
A day before the club’s first NWSL regular season match, Balcer was signed to her first contract.
“I came into the season with really no expectations. Just going from high school to college, college to pro is just a whole other level of intensity, physicality, and speed. And so I knew it would take me a few weeks to get my feet under me and really try to rise to the level of play,” Balcer shared.
Due to injuries, however, she got some early playing time — scoring in the home opener and showing she could hang with the pros. The rest, as Reign FC fans know, is history in the making. Balcer became an important cog in the Reign FC attack and continued to grow and develop match-by-match.
What impressed Andonovski the most was how versatile she was. She could play on the wing, in the striker role, and even as an attacking midfielder. And she adjusted to the defensive demands that the Reign FC head coach put on every player, winning 58% of her duels and covering lots of ground as the team pressed.
After getting no youth national team call-ups while in college, Balcer was selected for and played in a U-23 tournament this year and received a call-up to a December USWNT Discovery Camp — now under the capable hands of U.S. Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski.
While Balcer’s story feels like it can’t get any better, it truly is only just beginning.
“The way she made a name for herself in this league is a tremendous story. It’s a story that people will be talking about for years,” Andonovski shared upon Balcer’s selection as NWSL Rookie of the Year, where she took home 58% of the vote. “I feel like she has lots of potential and she can keep improving, keep developing and keep getting better.”