Bethany Balcer made history with Reign FC last weekend, becoming the first player from a NAIA school to sign a NWSL contract. For the player, the news was as unexpected as Balcer’s path to playing professionally was unconventional.
Already intending to sign a short-term contract as a World Cup replacement player, Balcer was in Tacoma when her phone buzzed Friday.
“I got a text from (Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski) as they were on the plane to Houston asking if I wanted to be a permanent player because a spot had opened up,” Balcer said. “Obviously, I said yes right away, (Reign FC owner Bill Predmore) called me, we got all the details figured out to fly me down to Houston to get me there for the game. It all happened pretty quick, but obviously it was great news to hear that they wanted me on the roster.”
The frantic packing ahead of an unanticipated trip ensued for Balcer, who suddenly had to scramble to make the next available flight to Houston. The stress of the quick turnaround wasn’t going to faze the 22-year-old, however.
“I had tears of joy in my eyes,” Balcer said. “It was the easiest yes I’ve ever said to join the team.
“It was awesome.”
The change was so quick that Balcer only had time to text her parents the news and grab a quick video chat with her sister as she was getting ready. When she got back from team training Saturday and the news had gone public, her phone was awash with notifications from well-wishers.
“Way too many to count,” Balcer said, laughing. “It was completely overwhelming. Messages, people posting to Facebook and Instagram about it. There was so much love. It was obviously overwhelming, because I didn’t have a ton of time to process it, but I was super grateful for all the support.”
Balcer had always dreamed of playing professional soccer, but says Spring Arbor University head coach Jason Crist told her that choosing to play in the NAIA didn’t have to end that dream.
“I knew that it was going to be a lot more challenging if I wanted to make it here going to an NAIA school, but I had fallen in love with Spring Arbor and my coach really gave me confidence,” Balcer said. “He said, ‘you can make it here, you don’t have to go to a Division I school.’ I loved so many other aspects about the school besides the soccer. That’s what kept me there. I know that the NAIA doesn’t always get a ton of credit, but the top teams in the NAIA are incredible and I think are on par with many bigger schools. “
The forward averaged 1.3 goals per game in four collegiate seasons at Spring Arbor University, becoming the first player named the NAIA Women’s Soccer Player of the Year three times and winning two national titles with the Cougars. Her 129 career goals rank as the fifth-best ledger of any player in NAIA history.
Citing its connection to her faith and the tight-knit community at the 1,380-student university, Balcer said she wasn’t certain she would have gotten the personal touch she admired about Spring Arbor from a larger Division I institution.
After going undrafted, Balcer accepted an invitation to come to the Reign’s preseason camp as a non-roster invitee. There, she got a chance to test herself against some of the world’s best players.
“With this tryout, I had a different mindset than I usually do,” Balcer said. “I didn’t feel a lot of pressure. If I’m meant to play soccer, the Lord is going to make that way for me. I went into it saying ‘I’m going to have fun and play my best and if it happens, great. If not, we’ll look for the next step.’”
Little by little, however, Balcer discovered that she wasn’t out of her depth with the club.
“There was a training session I remember distinctively. Milan Ivanovic, one of our assistant coaches, came over and said, ‘there’s something special about you, now just show us so we can see it.’ That lit a fire in me. Just hearing: ‘you are a talented soccer player, you belong here, you’re capable, now you just have to prove it’ was such a boost. That training session was one of my best ones of all because I was playing with belief.”
On Sunday, Balcer got the opportunity to make her debut. Already having used two substitutions due to injury in the first half, Andonovski chose to use his final sub on the rookie as the club held on to a 1-1 draw.
“I don’t think it hit me until after the game,” Balcer said. “‘Wow, I just got in my first-ever professional game.’ I was just so in the zone, ready to go in. It was towards the end of the game, so I had more energy than the other players who had been on the field for 90 minutes. I knew I had to go in and play hard. Vlatko told me ‘just enjoy it, don’t think about it. Go play and enjoy your first pro experience.’ That released a lot of pressure and allowed me to go out there and have fun.”
Balcer is proud of her unconventional path to the NWSL, but still has the same aspirations of any young player who earns a pro contract.
“I want to enjoy this experience and recognize how special that it is that I’m here playing in the best league in the world,” Balcer said. “It could be easy to take that for granted, but I think the fact that I’m here and I got here how I did, I really just want to enjoy every moment that comes in this season because it’s crazy that I got here. At the same time, I have so much to work on. I’m excited to work here with coaches and teammates that have been incredibly supportive. I’m excited to push myself and continue to grow with this team.
“I just hope that this opens the door in the future for other girls who may be questioning it to go to the school that they love. If they have the mindset and determination to make it, I think they will.”