Californian Reina Bonta on playing for Brazil's Santos FC and the Philippines: 'Experiencing something very special'

When it comes to her soccer, Reina Bonta has long appreciated both the journeys and the destinations.

Bonta played youth ball in the San Francisco Bay Area, high school soccer at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd, and college ball at Yale. Last October she debuted for the 2023 Women’s World Cup-bound Philippines national team. Since March, she has played for Brazilian club Santos FC.

With the Alen Stajcic-coached Philippines, she has traveled to Costa Rica, Chile, Australia, Spain, Tajikistan and Cambodia.

Since her March debut for Santos, located about 30 miles outside the metropolis of Sao Paulo, games in the Brasileiro and Paulista leagues have taken her to cities including Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Brasilia.

“Our away games are quite spread out across different parts of the country,” Bonta says. “We often take planes or long bus rides to them. I’ve been reflecting on that a bit lately, since it seems so much of my life is spent on busses lately. Also with the Philippines team, we see the hotel, the field, and the road to and from the former and the latter.

"I think there is a sort of quiet glamour to experiencing new worlds through gazing out the window of a moving bus.”

Bonta’s youth soccer required a remarkable commute when she was playing for the De Anza Force on the other side of the bay from her Alameda home.

After school, she would call an Uber while changing into practice gear for a ride to Fruitvale Station, the Oakland BART stop nearest to Alameda, to take the red line to its end station, Millbrae. From there she’d switch to CalTrain, get off at a stop closest to practice field and skateboard the last couple of miles. When the team practiced at Santa Clara University, it added another hour to the train trip.

“I would be so exhausted some days that I would fall asleep on the train and miss my stop, or be out of breath upon arrival from skateboarding as fast as I could for that last portion of the journey,” she says. “I used to joke with my teammates that I did two warm-ups every day. But I never found it unusual or difficult. It was just part of the experience of playing on the team, and something I always thought and still think was absolutely worth it.”

Reina Bonta (third from left) en route to Brasilia with Santos teammates ahead their 4-0 Campeonato Brasileiro, Serie A1 win over Real Brasilia.

Her teammates on De Anza Force 98, with which she celebrated the 2013 ECNL U-14 national title and reached the ECNL national final four three other times, included national team central defender Tierna Davidson.

"She was always a quality player,” Davidson says of Bonta. “We both played in midfield. I usually played the 6 and she played the 8."

Of Davidson, Bonta says: "Tierna was always an ideal teammate. She worked hard, she was humble, she was naturally gifted, she was level-headed, and she was smart. She actually wanted to be an astronaut when we were younger, and no one had a doubt in their mind that she would become one one day. Now, of course, after her illustrious professional soccer career [laughs]."

Bonta had started out with Oakland club Bay Oaks, where her coaches included her father, Rob Bonta. Now the first Filipino-American Attorney General of California — after becoming the first Filipino-American to serve in the California State Legislature — Bonta played soccer at Yale, which he helped reach the 1991 NCAA quarterfinals. He was part of the U-20 national team pool, played for 1996 USISL runner-up SF Seals, and attended the original MLS Player Combine.

It is through her father, who was born in Quezon City, Philippines, that Reina is eligible for the Philippines. Her mother, Mia (née Villafañe) Bonta, who met Rob at Yale, was born in New York City to parents who had moved there from Puerto Rico. She currently represents California's 18th District in the California State Assembly.

Since joining Santos, Bonta has traveled to the Philippine national team games in Tajikistan and Cambodia, which required trips of about 35 hours, and adjustment to 8- and 10-hour time differences. “It’s such a blessing to be able to represent both an iconic club and a history-making national team,” Bonta says, “and at the same time, it hasn’t been an easy task. And once you arrive, on top of getting your body acclimated for almost immediate matches, you have to absorb a new tactical system, a new style of play, refamiliarize yourself with your teammates and their strengths on the field, and speak in a different language on the field.”

How much Philippine culture was in your household?

REINA BONTA: My lola — “grandmother” in Tagalog — was born and spent her life in the Philippines until her mid-20s, when she immigrated to the U.S. She was a child of war, and during the World War II Japanese occupation of the Philippines, her house was burned down and she had to flee to the mountains with her family to survive.

I grew up in a multigenerational home with my lola helping to raise me, and because she always made it a priority, Filipino cultural customs and the Filipino-American community were cornerstones of my upbringing.

My lola taught me to sing and count in Tagalog from the age of 2. She taught me to dance the Tinikling together, a traditional Filipino dance with bamboo sticks. She cooked Filipino food constantly, and I was her 4-year-old plus-one to her events in Sacramento [such as for the Outstanding Filipino Youth Awards and Philippine National Day Association].

Both my father and my lola approach the idea of love for the Filipino community through a lens of social justice and activism, which has been really formative for me as a Filipina-American woman.

The Philippines national team is comprised largely of players with Philippines heritage who were born and raised in the USA, where more than 4 million people with Filipino ancestry reside. • They clinched their World Cup debut spot in January 2022 with a shootout win over Chinese Tapei in the quarterfinals of the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup in which Californian Quinley Quezada, who played at UC Riverside, scored their tying goal. Quezada has scored 22 times for the Philippines in 45 appearances. Northern Californian Sarina Bolden, who played at Loyola Marymount, has 21 goals since her 2018 debut. Goalkeeper Olivia Davies-McDaniel made two saves during the shootout in the win over Chinese Tapei. She and her sister Chandler McDaniel, who scored in a crucial 1-0 win over Thailand in group play, are both Californians who played at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Maryland product Katrina Guillou, who played at UNC Wilmington and is now with Sweden's Pitea, has scored 10 goals since debuting at the 2022 AFC Asian Cup. •  Since qualifying for the World Cup, the Philippines beat host Tajikistan, Pakistan and Hong Kong in April to win its group in the first round of the 2024 AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifying to advance to second round of Olympic qualifying in October. • In May, the Philippines competed at the 2023 Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia, where they celebrated a 2-1 win over Vietnam, which will open its first World Cup campaign against the USA. At the 2023 Women's World Cup, the Philippines will face Switzerland, co-host New Zealand and Norway in Group A.

Bonta played with current Philippines national team player Jessika Cowart, now with Swedish club IFK Kalmar, under coach Ricardo Marta at Gryphons SC before it joined De Anza Force SC. 

REINA BONTA: Coach Ric [Ricardo Marta] was a big supporter and “professor” of the Brazilian style, which now feels very full circle, and taught me the value of “joga bonito.” His daughter, Gabriella Marta, played on the team too, and we, along with Jessika Cowart, who I now play with on the [Philippines national team], spent countless hours watching games together at his house. He always sported a bright yellow Brazil jersey.

Andres Deza coached the De Anza 98 team Bonta, Davidson and Cowart played on. Other teammates included Joelle Anderson (Houston Dash), Luca Deza (Sevilla) and Olivia Athens (OL Reign).

REINA BONTA: Andres Deza is another highly influential coach that I had in my youth. He expanded on the tactical/technical philosophy I was taught at Gryphons, and was very particular about what he wanted from everyone. He knew how to get the best out of us. Brandi Chastain coached our team for one club tournament, when Andres was unavailable. That was a cool day. We all took photos with her afterward. Andres wanted us to get experience with a different coach before we went to college, since we had him for basically our whole childhood. So he stepped away for the final season and Mikey Varas coached us.

In 2015, Mikey Varas (far right), currently coach of the U.S. U-20 men's national team, succeeded Andres Deza as De Anza Force 98 coach in 2015. Reina Bonta is top row, third from left; Tierna Davidson fifth from left.

Bonta, who turned 24 in April, graduated from Yale with a Film and Media Studies degree. After interning at HBO, she produced and directed the short film “LAHI,” about a third-generation Filipina and the life of her grandmother. She was also working as a free-lance photographer when the Brazil opportunity arose.

While deciding to sign with Santos, Bonta reached out to Gwendolyn Oxenham, now an author (“Pride of a Nation”) and filmmaker (“Pelada”), who played for Santos in 2005 after starring at Duke. Oxenham spoke glowingly of her experience playing for Coach Kleiton Lima, who coached Santos in 1997-2010, Brazil at the 2011 Women's World Cup, and returned to Santos helm in 2022. Oxenham also covered her Santos experience in her podcast “Hustle Rule,” which Bonta listened to before signing.

What’s it been like for you at Santos?

REINA BONTA: Before arriving, I had heard so much about the unmatched culture and legacy of the club. But when I arrived here, and was able to experience it in-person, the feeling was surreal.

To live in the Vila, what we call the Santos stadium, pass Pele’s statue every day, play alongside players who played with Marta for years, and have the opportunity to meet Neymar right outside of my front door — are all things that make this experience at Santos honorable and one in a million. Our whole world, every day, is Santos.

What's the soccer in Brazil like compared to your previous experiences?

REINA BONTA: The style here in Brazil is something I’ve never experienced before. I remember calling my dad after one of my first days in Santos and telling him I haven’t been this excited to wake up and go to training since I was 12 or 13 years old, playing with Gryphons for the first time.

Not to say that I haven’t always enjoyed training every day, but I do feel like I’m experiencing something very special and novel here at Santos.

Every day is full of so much creativity and joy on the field. I trust every one of my teammates, who are all technically gifted and skilled. My personal style, as a more technical, attacking-minded center back who enjoys carrying the ball forward and making penetrating passes, is a very comfortable fit here in Brazil, and something that has allowed me to see a good amount of minutes on the field from the get-go. I feel very lucky about that. To receive a ball from our goalkeeper in buildup, play it forward, and watch beautiful plays unfold before me on the field, still gives me goosebumps.

Bonta's Santos teammates include captain Cristiane, the 38-year-old who scored 96 goals in 151 Brazil appearances and has played in five World Cups and four Olympics. Current Brazil national team players who had stints with Sereias da Vila (the Mermaids of Vila) include Tamires, Bia Zaneratto and Marta (in 2009-10 on loan between WPS seasons with Los Angeles and Gold Pride, and in 2011 ahead of the WPS season with the Western New York Flash).

How challenging has it been to adapt?

REINA BONTA: Isolation, and adapting to a completely new culture and country was one of the aspects about playing at Santos that I was most worried about before coming here.

But in complete honesty, the warmth and love from my teammates and coaching staff has made the transition feel seamless. It sounds cliche, but Santos feels like a family. I don’t use that word lightly, and wouldn’t use it to describe every team I’ve ever played on either.

The team and coaching staff come together to support players enduring hardship in their personal lives, and we’re able to celebrate our joyous moments and mourn our difficult ones together, comfortably and always.

Reina with her parents, Rob and Mia Bonta. Rob Bonta was born in Quezon City, Philippines, and immigrated to California with his family while an infant. He is now the first Filipino-American Attorney General of California after becoming the first Filipino-American to serve in the California State Legislature. Mia Bonta represents California's 18th District in the California State Assembly.

Are you learning Portuguese? What's the communication like with teammates and coaches? Do they speak English?

I arrived in Brazil not knowing a word of Portuguese, but after two months here, I’d like to say that I’m learning fairly quickly and understand about 70% of everything. Learning mostly happens through immersion – living and existing here – and I take some quick daily lessons on the language learning app Babbel. Aside from the other two Americans [including Jourdan Ziff, a Southern Californian who played college ball at Loyola, Maryland], only a few girls on the team are able to speak English, although Kleiton, our head coach, speaks English fairly well. Funnily enough, the language barrier is not actually something I think about often, because everyone here is patient, and I’m able to understand and communicate in a workable way.

You live at the club?

About 12 girls on our team, including me, live in the Vila, our stadium. It’s quite a nice setup. Our physio is here for treatment, our gym is here for team lifts, our cafeteria for meals, and, of course, our field. We’re able to access the stands at any time, since they’re just one flight of stairs above us. it’s a great place to call home from at night.

Any anything you're particularly enjoying? How you spend free time?

Culturally, the importance of family here in Brazil is one of the aspects I’ve enjoyed the most. Players on our team bring their families everywhere. Their little siblings kick the ball around on our field before training and join us in the team huddle, their mothers dance with us at team churrascos (Brazilian barbecues), their children escort the starting XI out onto the field on match days.

Family has always been extremely important to me, and it’s beautiful to see that value system echoed across an entire country here in Brazil. Outside of the four lines, I love going to the local feria (farmer’s market) and beach here in Santos, watching our men’s team play, and eating feijoada. But there are so many parts of living here in Santos that make me feel grateful to be here every day, and so much left to experience too.

3 comments about "Californian Reina Bonta on playing for Brazil's Santos FC and the Philippines: 'Experiencing something very special'".
  1. R2 Dad, May 23, 2023 at 6:57 p.m.

    Great story, glad to see she is living the dream. Lots of folks here still sing the praises of how far we've come re: youth development, but this girl had a brutal commute just to get reps with the best club team fit for her. Alameda to Santa Clara is at least 90 minutes one way--most players don't have the time/bandwidth/support/money to spend over 3 hours each day just commuting to the pitch. If things were so great, she could have played for similar-sized clubs same distance or closer to home (Mustangs, Marin FC, Santa Clara Sporting, MVLA, Concord Fire, Pleasanton Rage, SF Glens, Juventus, Burlingame et al). Was the disparity in coaching quality really so great, to justify such a commute? Apparently so. Closest MLS club was even further, in San Jose. When we talk about equality of opportunity in this country, 9 out of 10 players could not have managed to get this top training. So much talent falling by the wayside in this country as a consequence.

  2. uffe gustafsson, May 24, 2023 at 9:05 p.m.

    R2 I'm not sure the coaching was the real issue but more what team do I want to join, obviously that team was stacked w great players and you get that from winning trophies.
    so the question is why some other clubs much closer be a better option, think the answer is how to be seen in the best light of college recruitment. And think that's the real answer.
    once a club get trophies it just get snowballed and everyone want to join that team. I'm very happy to see her excelled and play for phillipines and we are going to watch em in New Zealand.

  3. R2 Dad replied, May 25, 2023 at 11:19 a.m.

    De Anza Force: Our Coaches Might Suck, But We Have The Best Players? That's a terrible marketing tag line. Given the whole Wild West approach to youth soccer, I thought the whole point of choosing a club was to get the best coaching? I must be so naive. And here it sounds like poaching players gets rewarded. Over the yearsUSSF's member coaches have all signed off on this madness. Better get poaching, coaches, that seems to be the best way to the top!

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