William Bönnelyche’s long arms and 6-foot-4 frame seemingly make him a perfect fit for the basketball court, but it has never been about three-pointers and alley-oops for the Stockholm, Sweden native. For Bönnelyche, soccer has always been his main passion, and now the freshman goalkeeper is 10 hours away from home pursuing a dream that his father and brother never got to realize.
“I never actually played basketball in my life,” he said. “I played floor ball and tennis and I was pretty good at tennis as well. At one point it was either tennis or soccer, but I chose soccer.” The Boston University men’s soccer program is likely happy he made that choice.
He explains how his father Eric had hopes of coming to the United States for one year during high school to play basketball, but never managed to get here. His brother Marcus had similar hopes; he dreamed of a college soccer career in the U.S., much like the one William has now, but recurring injuries stood in his way.
The elder Bönnelyche suffered the same injury three times, which ended up derailing his career. “At the time he was playing for one of the best clubs in Sweden, and doing really well,” Bönnelyche said. “Because of these injuries, they just told him, ‘We don’t want to have you here anymore.’”
With his brother now studying in England, Bönnelyche became the first member of his family to immigrate to the U.S. and go to college here. Imagine the pressure. College is a big enough adjustment for those who live just a short car ride away. For Bönnelyche, who arrived in January, he not only has to learn the nuances of soccer in this country, but he has to adjust an entirely new culture. Neil Roberts, now coaching his 33rd year of soccer on Comm. Ave., says sacrifice is paramount for these international players.
“This is what they weigh, this is better for you,” Roberts said. “These are sacrifices that even the kids on our team don’t realize. They don’t realize what these guys go through when they make their commitment to come here. But when they get here, they’re the same. They have different accents, but they’re the same.”
As for Bönnelyche’s particular adjustment, Roberts likes what he’s seen. “I think his adjustment is good,” he said. “Academically he’s a bright kid. Soccer-wise he’s doing fine and school-wise he’s doing extremely well.”
While one of the motivating factors in his decision to come to BU involved its prestigious Division 1 soccer program, Bönnelyche recognizes the value of a BU education as well.
“The options for me before coming here were to either go pro or come here and study and play soccer,” Bönnelyche said. “And obviously going pro is something that everyone dreams of and everyone wants to go pro, but at the same time wasn’t sure about what my opportunities would be at [Täby FK] – if I would be starting or not. And also I felt like coming here was a good opportunity for me to grow as a person, grow as a soccer player and also get an education.”
He doesn’t feel that he sacrificed his ability to go pro after BU, though. In fact, he remains pretty optimistic about those prospects. “If I can go pro after college, I still have the chance to because goalkeepers don’t have to be that young,” Bönnelyche said. “They can be quite old and still play so it felt like a good combination.”
However, Bönnelyche’s path to BU was an unconventional one. He recalls how, in his freshman year of high school, he came to the states for the first time and had tryouts with Boston College, BU’s Chestnut Hill rival, and Wake Forest. Neil Roberts & Co. were not even on his radar.
The August before his senior year, though, he emailed Roberts a highlight video, and within days the two talked on the phone.
“It’s difficult to judge a player just by looking at a highlight video because, you know, I could’ve just put in the best clips there are,” Bönnelyche said with a laugh. He told me that the BU coaching staff then live-streamed his games on the internet – how many he’s not too sure – but that “it moved quite quickly” after that.
While he wouldn’t admit it, his previous club Täby FK is one of the most prestigious in Sweden. With Bönnelyche’s help, Täby FK U19 team finished sixth in U19 Allsvensken, which is the highest league for Swedish U19 teams.
When asked how his Swedish culture shaped who he is as a person and soccer player, Bönnelyche didn’t hesitate.
“Discipline is very high in general,” he said. “With everything I do, I have a very high discipline. I think that comes from soccer. Especially the last four years I had in Sweden playing soccer, the types of game plans, the tactics required a lot of discipline. And so I think that shaped me a lot outside of sports.”
He needed more than discipline to acclimate to the U.S., though. The amount of homework took some getting used to, and the outward friendliness of Americans surprised him too.
On the field, he’s noticed that the American style of soccer, at least at the collegiate level, is more athletic than tactical. “We do a lot of tactics and we have our game plans and we’re supposed to follow them, but the focus on the tactical parts is not as focused and detailed as it is in Europe in general,” Bönnelyche said.
Through it all, Roberts and associate head coach Scott Black, along with Bönnelyche’s teammates, have helped ease the transition.
“You gotta keep an eye on them more,” Roberts said. “You know they’re gonna go through different things, so you gotta be more like a parent more than a mentor. You gotta make sure they have someone to talk to, someplace to be on holidays, that they have some family.”
Now that he’s been here for nine months, the adjustment period is over. And Bönnelyche has some pretty big shoes to fill. Matt Gilbert, who graduated in December, had become a rock in net for the Terriers. Roberts sees some similarities between the two goalkeepers.
“He’s a lot like Matt Gilbert when Gilbert came here,” Roberts said. “Gilbert will never admit this, but he was a bit awkward. He hadn’t grown into his body yet and so a bit slow and so forth and William is kind of in the same spot.”
He added: “Physically [William] will get stronger, he’ll grow into his body, he’ll become quicker. He reads the game well.”
Bönnelyche also sees the similarities between himself and BU’s previous goalkeeper, and he’s tried to learn as much from him as possible. Gilbert has returned to campus to work with the goalkeepers, and Bönnelyche says he’s paid close attention to Gilbert’s advice regarding footwork, which he sees as his main weakness.
The success Gilbert and his predecessor Nick Thomson found with the Terriers continues to motivate Bönnelyche, and he hopes continue their legacy.
“The expectations are high,” he said. “BU wants a good goalkeeper; they want someone that is great. I wouldn’t say that I feel nervous about it, feel any pressure like a need to be that. I would rather say that it really motivates me to become better because I know how good they’ve been and I wanna be as good if not even better.”
Bönnelyche won’t talk much about the future – he’s too focused on the here and now. He won’t tell you directly whether or not he intends to go pro after college, or even whether or not he’d like to stay in the U.S. All he’s concerned about is making the next three and a half years memorable.
“I just don’t wanna go here for four years and not be remembered,” Bönnelyche said. “I still wanna leave something behind. I believe if I put in the right amount of work and focus, I think it’s gonna be accomplishable.”