On Saturday night, defender Jonathan Bornstein took the field for the first time as a member of the Men In Red, starting and helping deliver a clean sheet in a 90-minute performance against D.C. United.
Prior to his debut, the 34-year-old sat down with Chicago-Fire.com at Chicago's Blackstone Hotel for a lengthy conversation on his career to date. The California native has come full circle professionally, now back in Major League Soccer for the first time since departing Chivas USA in 2010.
With the newest chapter of his life just beginning, Bornstein opened up on his time in Israel, being a part of U.S. soccer history, what he hopes to accomplish in Chicago, and more (edited for clarity):
Chicago-Fire.com: You've arrived in Chicago and have now had a few days to get a feel for your brand new city and club. As you take it all in, how has the early adjustment period gone?
Jonathan Bornstein: “Things in the club have been going really smoothly. Everyone within the club – the entire organization – is always open to help me with whatever I need. From the moment I touched down from Israel, I’ve been taken care of very well. I’m very happy on that end. Now I’m hoping the football part is going to take off as well. It’s a great group of guys, good locker room, so I’m hoping to incorporate myself into that group as quickly as possible.”
C-F.com: You’re arriving after a season in Israel’s top flight with Maccabi Netanya. Even though it’s still fresh, how do you reflect on your time there?
JB: “I’m really proud of how we ended, how I was able to grow amongst the team, and how they saw me after. The whole Chicago thing came about so quickly and a lot of my teammates were like, ‘You’re leaving? Really?’ and they all sent me messages and had nothing but good things to say. In terms of that, I felt really proud of what I helped accomplish in the little time I had at Netanya.”
C-F.com: You’d spent the seven seasons prior playing in Mexico’s Liga MX before moving halfway across the world for the opportunity in Israel. What was that transition like at that stage of your career?
JB: “The league really surprised me in terms of the level of play. You don’t hear much about Israel on this side of the pond, so I was really surprised with the level of play. I got in and I was really happy with the way the team played, tactics, technically, was very positive for me. I feel like I learned quite a deal from my time in Israel – not just on the soccer side, but also in terms of becoming a better person. Any time you travel abroad, I feel like you grow as a human being and it’s really helped me grow a lot.”
C-F.com: You ended up carving out an important role for yourself on the field, starting 25 times for Netanya while nearly helping them qualify for the Europa League. How did you go about establishing yourself in the squad?
JB: “We actually started the season off on a low note. In the first six games, I think we only had six points. We had a few players who left right at the beginning of the season who were integral parts of the team, so at the beginning of the season, we had no identity. We were getting new players. Finding that chemistry between players was a little bit hard, so it took some time. But then the group really started to come together. I was the oldest player on the team, so a lot of the younger players on the team looked to me in a leadership role. They saw how I trained, how I was playing in games, and they really were like, ‘Wow, this is a different mentality. He works hard every single day,’ so they really embraced that part of it. Then the team started winning.”
A defeat on the final matchday of the season saw Bornstein and Netanya finish in fourth place in the Premier League, a mere two points out of Europa League qualification. The club additionally finished as runners up in Israel’s State Cup tournament, narrowly missing out on hoisting the trophy for the first time in 45 years.
JB: “In three weeks, we went from cup final and almost finishing second to losing the cup final and finishing fourth. Still, a really good season for the team. It could have been a dream season, but unfortunately it didn’t end that way. It’s soccer, that’s how things go sometimes.”
Prior to Israel, Bornstein earned 38 caps as part of the U.S. Men's National Team, helping them win the 2007 Concacaf Gold Cup and appearing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. During that time, he played an integral part in two of the most famous moments in the region's soccer history:
C-F.com: You scored a stoppage time equalizer for the U.S. in October of 2009 against Costa Rica, a goal that helped Honduras leapfrog Costa Rica and qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Are you still considered something of a deity in Honduras for that?
JB: “I still get messages (laughs). It was 10 years ago now, but I still get ‘We still remember the goal’ in messages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, every time that part of the year comes around. It’s really nice to see. Just for scoring a goal, the impact it can have. It’s not as big a deal now as it was. I don’t even think about it until people send me messages. I feel very fortunate that I was able to help them out that way. What a great moment.”
C-F.com: You also started and played 80 minutes in the USMNT’s 1-0 win over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, and were a very visible part of the dog pile that ensued when Landon Donovan famously scored the game-winning goal in stoppage time to win the game and the group. What do you remember about that moment?
JB: “I remember just being on the edge of my seat the entire time. Then, obviously, the play happens and the ball goes into the back of the net and the whole bench, I think we were already celebrating as he was shooting. Dempsey had that first opportunity that just squirted out, and then Donovan comes around and just puts it away. It was crazy because everyone from the bench and from the field was able to share a moment outside the field, because the players on the bench can’t run out there. It was really special, just to be running the whole entire half of the field and then jumping on everyone. It was a special moment. For me, it’s also one of the best moments in U.S. Soccer history for sure.”
C-F.com: In another brush with soccer history, your career intersected with Ronaldinho’s while at Liga MX side Queretaro in 2014-15. Any good stories there?
JB: “Playing with him was phenomenal. He obviously wasn’t at his peak moment like he was when he was at Barcelona or AC Milan, but still there were moments on the field in games where you were just taken aback and saying ‘Wow, this is another level of soccer.’”
“My wife actually helped him and his brother with some of the contracts because she’s a lawyer and she specializes in contracts. She’s also Brazilian and from the same city as them. We were very connected with them. My favorite moment with him is when we were pregnant. We were staying in the team hotel. My wife dropped me off at the hotel and Ronaldinho was just arriving as well. My wife got out of the car to say hi to him, so he came over and we spoke, and he blessed my wife’s belly (laughs). He said something like, ‘This baby is going to be an amazing soccer player or a beautiful princess,’ something special in Portuguese. It was really great to have that moment with him with the baby on the way.”
C-F.com: Bringing it back to Chicago, how then did your conversations begin with the Fire?
JB: “I told (my agents) if there’s any options that come up in MLS, in Mexico, anywhere, bring them to me so we can take a look at the opportunity. Then Chicago came to life. When I heard about it, I spoke with Pauno and he told me about where the team was at and his idea for my role in the team. Something similar to what happened with Netanya where there’s a lot of young guys -- we have a good base of players -- but he needs a little bit more experience. Hopefully I can help in that aspect. When we weighed all the pros and all the cons, the Fire family seemed like a great new start.”
C-F.com: At 34, what’s your approach to maintaining a top level physically at this stage of your career?
JB: “My entire career, I’ve always worked extremely hard. My dad, who passed away a few years ago from cancer, he taught me work ethic. That was his number one thing. He taught it through example. He worked extremely hard at a really hard job. He didn’t make a lot of money, but he never missed a day. He showed up on time or before, stayed until late. He did everything for us as kids. So he taught me that work ethic is the best thing you can have as a person. My entire career, since I was a little kid, I’ve worked hard on every team. I may not have been the best player, I just worked and worked and worked. That’s what I do. I continue to just work hard.”
“As you get older, things don’t go the same. When you’re 24, your body recovers really quickly. Now that I’m 34, it’s definitely not the same (laughs), so I try to take advantage of all the resources that football entitles us to have, and just keep working hard.”
C-F.com: What are you most excited about with this new opportunity ahead of you in Chicago?
JB: “After speaking with Pauno and speaking with my agents, the club, everything seemed like the right decision to come back to the United States. The level of play is very good here in MLS, and I hope with my experience, my level of play, that I can just keep growing as a player and growing as a person.”
Bornstein and the Fire are back in action on Saturday night in Houston, when they take on the Dynamo at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN+.