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Vancouver teen a Dutch treat

Brandon Bonifacio makes a big impression, getting promoted to top level club status in Europe

Dan Stinson, Vancouver Sun

Published: Friday, May 11, 2007

When Vancouver-born midfielder Brandon Bonifacio looks back on his first-team debut with Netherland's SC Cambuur-Leeuwarden on March 25, he knows it could have been better.

Tapped as a halftime substitute against FC Zwolle of Enschede, he was sent off with a red card in the 65th minute for a late tackle on a Zwolle player.

His team lost 2-0, and Bonifacio sat out the next three games with a suspension.

"I was over-anxious and a little too overconfident after coming on," Bonifacio said earlier this week, after returning home to work on his Grade 12 international baccalaureate studies at St. George's, a west-side Vancouver private school.

"But everyone at the game, including my teammates, was pretty supportive after I got the red card. Everyone agreed that it was a yellow card [caution] at best and told me to keep my head up. Getting sent off isn't the end of the world. I just wished it hadn't happened in my first-team debut."

Cambuur general manager Alex Pama agrees with Bonifacio's assessment of the red card.

"At the very least, it was questionable," says Pama. "It was an unfortunate debut for Brandon, but we continue to regard him very highly."

So it would seem.

Bonifacio has been included in a roster restructuring of SC Cambuur-Leeuwarden's First Division team, following impressive stints at the club's youth and reserve side levels.

Bonifacio's official promotion to top-level status came last Thursday, when he was signed to a three-year contract after Cambuur's disappointing 12th-place finish in the Netherlands' 20-team First Division standings in the 2006-07 season -- and a change in the team's head coaches.

Head coach Roy Wesseling was fired by Cambuur in mid-season. He was replaced by Jurrie Koolhof, a striker in the 1980s with Netherlands giant PSV Eindhoven, among other club sides in the country. Koolhof earned five caps with the Netherlands national team during the same decade.

Bonifacio, 17, signed with Cambuur's under-19 youth team last Aug. 2. He combined youth team games during weekdays with reserve team matches on Saturdays, and within one month earned full-time status with the reserves -- most notably playing in a Dutch Federation Cup quarter-final match against Ajax Amsterdam's reserve side last Oct. 25.

Strengthened with several first-team players, Ajax won the game, 3-1. But Cambuur officials were impressed with Bonifacio's performance.

"We felt we needed to give Brandon a chance with the first team," says Pama. "We were making a lot of changes to the first team, with an attitude that some of our better younger players should be given a chance. Brandon had shown a lot of promise and potential with the reserve team."

Bonifacio played in every reserve team game before his promotion to the first team. After serving his suspension, he was listed as a substitute, but didn't play, in an April 20 game against Stormvogels Telstar (a 1-0 Cambuur win) and in an April 27 match against FC Omniworld (a 4-1 Cambuur win). He left the club with two regular-season games remaining to continue his IB studies at St. George's.

Bonifacio, who will graduate in June, maintained his studies as an exchange student in the Netherlands at the Groningen International School while playing soccer. He will return to Leeuwarden for training camp on July 1, three days after his 18th birthday.

"The team has made some good changes," says Bonifacio, noting that fellow reserve team midfielder Rene Hoen of the Netherlands was also promoted to Cambuur's first team. "The new coach is more inclined to give young players a chance. Being a former striker, he's more attack-oriented in the style he wants the team to play."

Bonifacio joined Cambuur after starring for the Vancouver Selects under-16 side that won the Canadian age-group club championship in October 2005 in St. John's, Nfld.

He was one of five Selects players who signed with professional clubs, joining North Vancouver midfielder Robbie Giezen (FC Groningen's under-19 team of the Netherlands), wingers Alex Martinez of Vancouver (Mexico's Atlas under-19 team) and Michael Nonni of West Vancouver (FC Groningen under-19 team), and Vancouver defender Marcus Haber (FC Groningen under-19 team).

Giezen, Nonni and Haber have been invited to return for a second year with Groningen at the under-19 level. Haber is also in the pool of players with Canada's under-20 national team, which plays five-time and defending world youth champion Argentina in a Friday friendly match at Toronto's BMO Field.

Cambuur's first team finished the 2006-07 season with a 13-17-8 record, scoring 44 goals but conceding 57 -- the eighth worst goals-against record in the First Division. Eight players were released from a team that hasn't played in the Netherlands Premier League since the 2000-01 season.

Cambuur must finish among the top eight teams in the First Division to be in contention for playoff promotion to the Premier League.

"The players who have been promoted, including Brandon, have positively demonstrated their technical ability," says Pama. "That part of the equation isn't an issue. It's now about whether they have the character and commitment to play at a higher level. Our hope is that players like Brandon will continue to improve the more they play with the first team."

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