GUADALAJARA, Mexico – With the halftime whistle just minutes away in Tigres UANL’s Copa Libertadores qualifier second leg last Thursday, it seemed like Jonathan Bornstein was finally getting his break.
The Monterrey-based club, fielding players on the fringe of the first team, was 2-0 up against Unión Española, dominant and on their way into the group stages of the feted competition.
Bornstein was the metronome at the heart of the team, launching cross-field passes onto the toes of his teammates and breaking up opposition attacks from his new position in central midfield.
“I thought we were controlling the game and I thought I contributed pretty well to that,” Bornstein recounted to MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday.
Then it started to turn sour.
Seven minutes before the break, Tigres center back José Rivas made a bad tackle in the box, giving the Chileans a penalty kick and earning himself a straight red card. It was all Unión Española from then on out, as the hosts earned a 2-2 draw – advancing 3-2 on aggregate.
It was about as bittersweet a moment as Bornstein has had since leaving Chivas USA for Tigres a little more than a year ago.
“For me, it [was] definitely disappointing,” he said of his team's elimination from the tournament. “I was looking forward to getting minutes on the field and just playing, which is what I want to do.”
Passage into the Libertadores group stage would almost have guaranteed six more games for the 2010 World Cup veteran, and a chance to try and play his way into the team for Tigres’ league games.
For now though, it’s back to the grind of training hard to force his way into what it widely considered Mexico’s best team. But Bornstein remains upbeat.
He believes his “game is coming on again,” and says he feels much more comfortable on the field since an operation to remove a bone fragment from his ankle back in December.
Aside from his individual showing in the Libertadores qualifiers, the amiable “Jonny B” also points to the fact he has been named to Tigres’ 18-man squad in their last three games as evidence that first-team minutes may not be too far away.
But whichever way you look at Bornstein’s stats since joining Tigres, they don’t make great reading. The Los Angeles-area native has played only 273 minutes in Mexican Primera División action since signing at the back end of 2010 and has not appeared for the first team in a league game since early May of last year.
If a chance with the first team does not materialize, he is well aware he might have to look elsewhere this summer.
“I need to play and to be seen if I want to try and get back onto the national team,” Bornstein admitted. “I think if I don’t start playing this season, definitely to have some options open would be a smart move.”
A move to another Mexican team or a stint in Europe would be Bornstein’s primary options, although he is not completely discounting a return to MLS, either. The Portland Timbers hold his MLS rights after selecting his name in the 2010 Expansion Draft.
Right now, though, Bornstein remains clear that his No. 1 objective is to play for Tigres, for whom he has developed great affection.
“The ideal would be to play here because I think this team is amazing, the fans are great and playing in that stadium every other week would be pretty amazing,” he said of his future.
Bornstein says the scenes after Tigres won the championship for the first time in 29 years last December are difficult to put into words and that he considers the team’s fans the best in Mexico – comparable to the best fans in South America and even Europe.
The former Chivas USA captain and 2006 MLS Rookie of the Year is also comfortable off the field, living with his fiancé, eating out when he wants and enjoying the challenges of learning Spanish.
“Personally, I haven’t felt the insecurity at all and we live a pretty normal, tranquilo life,” explained Bornstein, whose teammates have recently been ribbing him for his resemblance to former Mexican international Joaquín del Olmo.
He was also pleased to meet Mexican President Felipe Calderón last week as part of the championship-winning squad, to add to other political figures he has met such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.
It would be a wrench for Bornstein to leave Tigres in the summer in search of playing time, but if it does come to it, he feels he has learned a lot from head coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti and now considers central midfield his primary position.
It’s the second major position change he has experienced in his career, after being converted from a forward into a fullback by Bob Bradley when he was drafted by Chivas USA back in 2006.
“I train every day in center mid,” said Bornstein. “Every day playing, I’ve felt more comfortable at it and we’ll see if left back ever comes around.”
It is a crucial few months for Bornstein, and his goals are simple: Get a break in the first team, perform as he did in the Copa Libertadores and improve his stock. If he can accomplish that, an extended stay at Tigres could be on the cards. If not, this summer could be full of change.
Either way, his Libertadores performances showed there is much more to come for many people’s forgotten gringo down south.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. He can be reached via email@example.com.