Born to a Jewish father and Mexican mother, Bornstein admits to growing up in a cultural no-man's land that at times left him feeling "lost." Then there was the challenge of being an American player joining a Chivas USA side with the deepest of Latin roots.
On top of that, Bornstein was asked to play fullback after an amateur career spent exclusively as an attacker. But rather than turn into the MLS equivalent of Sybil, the UCLA product's first months in the league have seen him emerge as one of its up-and-coming fullbacks.
So far this year, Bornstein has been on the field for all but one minute of the season, and has helped solidify a Chivas defense that has gone from dead last in 2005 to third in 2006. The Torrance, Calif., native has also shown an ability to contribute to the attack, whether from midfield or his now customary left back position, and he even chipped in with a goal in Chivas' 3-0 win over Dallas on Saturday.
The move from attacker to defender can be bewildering for some, but it's one that Bornstein, at least so far, has successfully navigated.
"At first, the transition was a bit of a challenge because you have different responsibilities as a fullback than you do as an attacker," Bornstein says. "But I tried to make the transition as quickly as possible. I started watching soccer games from a defensive point as opposed to an attacking point. Definitely it was hard at first, but I've kind of fallen into that position, and I've taken a liking to it."
It was a role that head coach Bob Bradley had targeted for Bornstein almost from the beginning of training camp, which is surprising given Bornstein's rather unheralded status as a fourth-round draft pick. But in talking to Chivas midfielder Jesse Marsch, it's clear that Bradley had rated Bornstein highly even prior to preseason, going so far as to compare him to current U.S. international DaMarcus Beasley.
Given that Marsch had played with Beasley in Chicago, he had seen numerous players compared to his former teammate, and such comparisons usually elicited a heavy degree of skepticism from the 10-year veteran. But after a few days of training camp, Marsch was won over.
"I realized after a week that he really does play like [Beasley]," Marsch said of Bornstein. "He's obviously really fast, and he can shift himself while at full speed like DaMarcus can to avoid tackles and to manipulate both the ball and his body so that he's a handful for anyone who is trying to defend him. The other quality that makes him like DaMarcus is that he can defend any player that is playing on that wing."
His physical attributes aside, perhaps the biggest aid in Bornstein's transition to defense has been the mental part of his game. Playing in the back requires an awareness that borders on paranoia, as well as an ability to think on one's feet. Bradley noticed these traits in Bornstein right away.
"[Bornstein] just has good soccer instincts, so his adjustment to playing in the back has been excellent," Bradley says. "He reads the game well, he's quick, and he's very alert. I think he's just a good soccer player."
Given his inexperience, Bornstein still makes his share of mistakes, as sometimes his penchant for getting forward can work against him. But according to Bradley, such errors are correctable.
"It's just fine-tuning things," Bradley says. "There are still times defensively when he can tackle a little bit better. There are times when he can see the first pass out of the back a little bit earlier, but it's just little things."
Such has been Bornstein's progress that Marsch feels he'll get a look from the national team by the end of the year. But there might be some competition for his services. During Mexico's preparation for the World Cup, Bornstein's club teammate, Mexican international Claudio Suarez, took to watching his club team's matches along with some of the Mexican coaching staff. On a Chivas team sprinkled with players like Paco Palencia and Juan Pablo Garcia, it was Bornstein's play that caught the eye of Mexico assistant coach Jorge Campos.
"[Bornstein] really grabbed [Campos'] attention and Jorge asked me about him," Suarez said through an interpreter. "Campos said that he was a player who had great technique, who was very good at attacking. Defensively, Johnny is still learning since it is not his original position, so that is the area he might have to work on more."
While such national team considerations are still the stuff of dreams, it wouldn't be the first time that Bornstein has been caught in that kind of cultural tug-of-war. He admits that his mixed ancestry created more than a bit of confusion for him as he grew up, something that was exacerbated by his parents' divorce when he was just 4 years old, and it hasn't gone away.
"Just experiencing both cultures, sometimes I felt like I didn't know where I belonged," Bornstein says. "It's still a soul-searching kind of thing, trying to figure out exactly where you come from or which heritage you relate to. I still kind of feel lost even to this day, but it's something that I just deal with, and it makes me a stronger person having both of those heritages."
In recent years, Bornstein has gone through some experiences that have reinforced his connections to both sides of his family. A trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, while playing at UCLA saw him tap into his Hispanic roots, while his participation in the Maccabiah Games, where he helped the U.S. to the silver medal, marked his first ever trip to Israel.
The result of this cultural reconnection is that his extended family, including both parents, now makes up part of the Chivas USA faithful. Upwards of 40 friends and relatives were on hand to witness Bornstein's first professional goal against Dallas, a fact that left him feeling a little verklempt afterward.
"It was the greatest feeling ever in my career," Bornstein says of his goal. "I've scored some big-time goals for my club and everything, but that didn't compare to scoring my first professional goal. The players were making fun of me because I got asked about it, and I said I got a little choked up. But honestly, it was a big moment in my life, and I had my whole family there to see it."
That family now includes his club, another outfit with a Latin base containing other influences as well. But as this season has progressed, the only culture that the players are concerned with has to do with winning. With an unbeaten streak currently at six games, it would seem that the team is well on its way.
"Everyone is feeling good about the way the team is going and we're still getting a lot better, coming together as a team a lot more," Bornstein says. "Heads are high, and we just have to keep going from there."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com