Veteran Chicago Fire FC defender Jonathan Bornstein's long and winding road back to MLS

Jonathan Bornstein goal celebration vs. NE

Jonathan Bornstein packed a lot of life into the nine years between his departure from MLS in 2010 and his return to the league to join Chicago Fire FC last summer. 

It’s a long and winding story, as the globetrotting lives of his young daughters Julia, 4, and Joanna, 2, reflect. The sisters were born in Mexico during his time with Queretaro – a stint marked by Copa MX and Supercopa MX trophies for the left back – then got a taste of Mediterranean life as Bornstein caught on with Maccabi Netanya in Israel, where he also earned citizenship thanks to his family’s Jewish heritage. Now the Windy City is home, in a downtown high-rise with a view of Soldier Field, where dad and his teammates hope to eventually make their deferred debut in a new era for the rebranded, relocated Fire. 

English is already the third language for the kids. They speak Spanish as well as Portuguese thanks to the Brazilian roots of Bornstein’s wife Juliana, whose parents are actively involved in helping with child care. So Jonathan himself has picked up his own version of “Portuñol,” in addition to his Spanish skills. 

“My in-laws always joke that at the beginning they could speak bad about me, but [later] they couldn't say anything bad because I started understanding everything,” he explained in recent conversation with 

“Every single decision we make in life takes us on different paths, and I think I've been able to have a lot of great adventures – ups and downs – throughout my playing career.”

His journey has also taken him to unexpected places both physical and spiritual, too. Born in Southern California to a Jewish father and Mexican-American mother, he was registered as a domestic player on arrival in Israel – but by that point he had converted, giving him a particularly unique perspective on the Holy Land. 

“In terms of receiving my Israeli citizenship, I kind of just left it blank on the question that said ‘religious views,’” Bornstein said with a laugh. 

“When I met my wife, I found my faith in Christianity. So I got baptized Christian while I was in Mexico, and going to Israel also strengthened those views,” he explained. “There’s both sides in Israel, you’ve got so many different religions in the same spot. It was really great going to Jerusalem, and seeing the path that Jesus took while he was crucified, and going to Nazareth and seeing where he grew up. All those things, I feel like strengthened my faith in Christianity.”

While in Netanya, members of his and Juliana’s families visited so often that Jonathan learned the tour guides’ spiel well enough to start conducting their visits to holy sites himself. Meanwhile he also made a quick study of Ligat ha’Al, an underrated competition he says tested him in welcome ways. 

“I didn't know what to expect in terms of the league or the level of play. And very quickly I noticed the quality of soccer there is very high,” he said. “They compete in [UEFA] Champions [League] qualifying and Europa qualifying … All the games are competitive, you never know who's going to win. I felt like the level of play helped me grow even more as a player. I really enjoyed playing in that league.”

Bornstein’s entire career has been laced with challenges and adaptations for both club and country, some coaches won over, others unmoved. The 2006 MLS Rookie of the Year and a member of the 2007 Best XI, he’s old enough to have been a standout for the Chivas USA teams that were a Western Conference contender. And he endured stints at Tigres UANL and Queretaro, in which he seemed chained to the bench, only to find a path back to the pitch again and again. 

Veteran Chicago Fire FC defender Jonathan Bornstein's long and winding road back to MLS -

Jonathan Bornstein celebrates while with Queretaro | Action Images

He’s soared from the euphoria of World Cup qualifying heroics – you may remember the injury-time equalizer for the US men’s national team vs. Costa Rica in 2009 that made him a celebrity in Honduras, who reached their first World Cup because of it – and a spot on the 2010 squad in South Africa, to the despair of the 4-2 Gold Cup final loss to Mexico in 2011, which remains his last international appearance to date. 

Now 35, Bornstein could be forgiven for throttling back his expectations a bit and focusing on the near term. Instead, he’s made it his goal to play until he’s 40. And despite a near-decade drought through the Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena regimes, hasn’t given up hope of adding to his 38 career caps.

“I mean, I’m a realist,” he said. “I like to look at the situation and take it for what it is.”

He recognizes his form hit a low ebb on that fateful day at the Rose Bowl when Pablo Barrera and Giovani dos Santos wreaked havoc on his side of the pitch and Bob Bradley’s time in charge of the US drew to a close. He struggled to carve out minutes at Tigres until a loan to Queretaro helped him “finally find his groove” some three years later. He remained in the wilderness for his country even as he became a starter on one of Liga MX’s top teams, then proved a trusted contributor at Netanya.

“I felt like I deserved another shot. It never came because obviously they were bringing in newer, younger players with the national team,” said Bornstein. “I understand the situation, and even given that, I still keep my dreams alive of maybe returning to the national team. If you're playing well here in MLS and they're watching and you're doing better than the other guys are doing wherever they're at, I think you deserve a chance. The only thing I can control is how I play, so hopefully when we return to the field I can continue this good run that I’m having.”

Since his arrival in Chicago, he’s become an anchor of stability in a time of change for the Fire, and scored one of their two goals in this interrupted season’s first two matches.

Now he and his teammates travel to Orlando for the MLS is Back Tournament as dark horse contenders in the eyes of some observers.

The biggest weapon in his skillset has always been his brain more than his legs, and left back is rarely a position of great depth for the US. With the road to Qatar 2022 already wracked by the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic and its myriad disruptions to daily life, who would dare to predict what the next few years might bring?

“Despite how everyone says my age and the fact that I'm getting up there,” Bornstein chuckled, “I still feel physically at a good level, and mentally, even better than I've ever been.”