After just two days, Bethany Balcer’s NWSL career was seemingly over before it even started.
Balcer, who had already beaten the odds to even be in pre-season camp with Reign FC, was about to be cut well before the first week had ended.
But in a moment of destiny, or maybe just plain luck, the undrafted free agent out of tiny Spring Arbor University in Michigan had already gone home for the day.
Rather than give Balcer the bad news when she showed up for training on day three, then-head coach Vlatko Andonovski gave her another shot.
In nearly three years since that fateful third day of training, Balcer has not looked back.
This week, with Andonovski again as her coach, Balcer made her debut for the U.S. women’s national team. As she reflected on how far she had come, the OL Reign forward also acknowledged how different it all could have been had fate – and a tremendous performance on day three – not intervened.
“I knew I might be there for two days. I was hoping they'd give me at least a week to settle in,” Balcer told GOAL on All of US: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Show.
“It just takes time for players to adjust to their environment, so I'm super glad I left early that day, got another chance to prove myself and took advantage of that moment.”
As a player who attended a school in the NAIA – an athletics association for small colleges and universities – Balcer said that she was not thinking of a professional career “at all” when she started her collegiate career.
It is easy to see why. NAIA schools rarely produce professional athletes in any sport and before Balcer, it had never sent a player to the NWSL, let alone to the USWNT.
But Balcer completely dominated against lesser competition at Spring Arbor. Then, crucially, she proved she could compete against players from bigger schools during summer leagues. Suddenly, the possibility of a professional future became slightly less remote.
After earning an unlikely spot on the Reign roster in 2019, Balcer began her NWSL career with few expectations of meaningful minutes. But under Andonovski’s guidance, she began to quickly show she was ready for the step up.
“Playing under him my rookie year was the best thing for me as a player,” Balcer said. “[He] allowed me to play with more freedom and be OK with making mistakes, because I was going to, and I didn’t have to fear that as much. So I really think I developed a lot my rookie year because of him.”
Balcer, who also credits Reign star Megan Rapinoe with helping her with the transition to the pros, scored six goals her first season and was named the NWSL Rookie of the Year.
But a pandemic-curtailed 2020 season left the forward feeling like she was starting from square one heading into the 2021 campaign.
“I feel like I didn't really get to prove myself again,” Balcer said of the 2020 season. “So, honestly, this past year was a really big year of you know: ‘Beth you belong here, this is what you're supposed to be doing, nothing was a fluke.’”
If 2019 was Balcer’s foothold in the league, 2021 was the year she showed she is a star. The 24-year-old finished second in the league’s Golden Boot race with nine goals, and was named to the NWSL Best XI second team.
“I'm just more comfortable on the field now,” Balcer said. “I don't have to be afraid of what people are thinking of me or if I am good enough, because I know that I am.”
Balcer knew she belonged in the NWSL. And she suspected she would soon get a chance to show she could hack it with the national team as well.
“I don't want to say I wasn't expecting [the call-up] because I feel like as a player you should always be wanting that and expecting the call,” she said. “And I knew I had a decent season in the NWSL.”
Balcer made one cameo off the bench in the USWNT’s two games against Australia, but she will likely get another chance to prove herself at the team’s upcoming January camp.
With the U.S. featuring almost all veterans in their attacking line in recent years, there will be a chance for a new generation of forwards to emerge as the team looks toward the 2023 World Cup.
“It's just exciting to have such a young group of players and be a part of that group,” Balcer said. “We can hopefully be the future of the national team if we can perform well.”
In less than three years, Balcer has gone from a longshot to even play professionally to someone who could be a national team fixture moving forward. Players are often complimented for being the first person into training and the last to leave, but at least on one particular day, making a hasty exit proved to be an outstanding decision.
“I proved myself,” Balcer said. “It’s a good thing [Andonovski] didn't cut me and that I'm still here!”