Commentary

Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan, rookie stars at Chivas USA in 2006, still have lots to bring to game



Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan have followed mirroring paths since they were young teens, emerging from Southern California's fertile club scene, connecting first as Chivas USA first-years in 2006, departing for opportunities abroad as the club began its descent toward oblivion four years later, then returning to Major League Soccer as savvy veterans providing vital leadership on and off the field.
 
Both are playing critical roles for their clubs again this year, mostly off the bench as extensions of their coaches, as they edge closer to 40 and what will come next.
 
Bornstein, 37, has been a leader on the backline and in the locker room for the Chicago Fire since returning in 2019 from eight and a half years in Mexico and Israel. Kljestan, 36, has played a similar role in midfield and the clubhouse for three seasons with the LA Galaxy -- the club both cheered on during their youth -- after a prosperous stint with the New York Red Bulls and one not so robust with Orlando City SC following four and a half years as a key figure with 34-time Belgian champion RSC Anderlecht.
 
They compose half of those still active in MLS from that 2006 rookie class -- along with Nashville SC's Dax McCarty and FC Montreal's Kei Kamara -- and have no plans to step away any time soon. When they do, they might not venture very far: They were classmates last fall while earning their B coaching licenses.
 
Their ample understanding of the game and its nuances -- borne of experience in varied landscapes and transformed during tenures in foreign leagues -- and embrace of mentoring opportunities with younger teammates bodes well should coaching be their futures, but why discuss that now? There are so many more games to be played, so much unfinished business.
 
“First and foremost, I still feel like I have a lot to bring to the game ...,” said Kljestan, an 8 with a 10's sensibilities. “You know, at this point, we take it year by year. But I would say at this point in the season, I definitely feel like playing again next season.”
 
He says he's “deeply disappointed” that he hasn't “been able to lead the team to the playoffs yet,” but that “this year and what remains to be seen over the next couple of years, I hope to be able to lead the team back to the glory days.”
 
Bornstein, a left back who can play centrally or higher up the flank, said he thinks of his role as “a guy always competing for a starting spot, a guy who is always out there working harder than anybody to win his place on the team. That's my initial thinking always.”
 
They're toiling for mid-level sides. The Galaxy (9-9-3) is clinging to seventh in the West after beating Atlanta United on Sunday, just its second win in seven games since the end of May as it bids for its second postseason berth since Bruce Arena departed after the 2016 campaign. The long-suffering Fire (7-10-5), which has reached the playoffs just once in the past decade, is ninth in the East, two points off the line, following three successive victories -- giving it five wins in eight games after a 10-game winless stretch through April and May.
 
Neither figures to be the pivotal piece that determines which way their clubs' seasons go, but the influence both yield, on and perhaps more so off the field, could be instrumental in finding whatever success can be secured.
 
Bornstein is seeing less time this year, with seven starts in 15 appearances across the Fire's first 22 games after making 25 starts in 30 outings last year under Raphael Wicky and Frank Klopas, but has made an imprint in whatever capacity he's been asked to fill.
 
“He brings very good attributes to our team,” Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson said. “Being able to play in so many different positions has helped us out. When we've had some injuries or some Covid-protocol stuff, he's always answered the call, always stepped up and did the job.”
 
Bornstein's late goal off the bench clinched Chicago's first win of the season, a 2-0 decision March 12 at D.C. United, and he was crucial over 90 minutes in home shutout victories against D.C. in mid-June and over Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders ahead of Saturday's 2-1 triumph at Vancouver. He came on near the end against the Whitecaps to help nail down those three points, as he'd done in the Fire's other two wins.
 
Kljestan was a regular starter at every stop until he joined the Galaxy, where he's been among the team's most important role player, especially since Greg Vanney took control last season. He almost always has an impact upon entering in the second half, either focusing the attack in search of an equalizer or winning goal or calming things down and bringing greater organization to the group as it defends a lead.
 
“That's the wisdom he comes in with,” Vanney said. “Especially having the opportunity to sit outside and see what's going on on the field, then going in and recognizing where the spaces are an how best to employ yourself. He has a great sense of that.
 
“We try to use him in the best ways possible to help him be that guy who can help settle things down, give us a little bit more possession, help to orchestrate things, sometimes taking a role where he's more of a set-up player than somebody we're looking to [finish].”


 
Kljestan has started once in 14 appearances over LA's first 21 games, converting a penalty kick that provided a late, brief lead in a 1-1 draw May 18 at Minnesota United and assisting three goals -- one a gorgeous, top-of-the-box backheel to feed Rayan Raveloson's second strike and finish off a 4-0, Fourth-of-July rout of Montreal -- to push his career MLS mark to 99, sixth on the league's all-time list.
 
“I've been used off the bench, and that, I think, has been beneficial to the team,” he said. “Coming into games in the second half and, whether we're winning or losing, being able to manage the game, being able to help push the attack ... control the game with possession if we have the lead and trying to shore things up and just be an organizer and communicator.”
 
Teaching their teammates the ropes, like they were taught
 
What they offer outside the 90 minutes might be more pronounced. Neither usually wears the team's armband, but they're captains in all but name, the most respected voices in their locker rooms, playing outsized roles in creating landscapes that can breed success, whether that be in the coming game, in prodding along talent that will be talked about in the next few years, or helping foreign players find their ways in a strange league with uncommon challenges.
 
When Chicago's Spanish-speaking players are confused, it's Bornstein who clears up the uncertainties. He translates for them in team meetings. Kljestan's locker is next to those of his French-speaking teammates, for whom he can make clear what seems oblique.
 
“Just by the way, I think, I carry myself, I'm trying to be a leader within the group,” Kljestan said. “Being vocal when I need to be vocal, being hard on guys if I need that, being a supportive teammate and being the guy who speaks up the most in the locker room. That's where I'm at at this time in my life.”
 
Bornstein is an example for the Fire's many youngsters, showing them the details of professional life and steering them toward what they want to be. The rewards of such work are many.
 
“More than anything, just seeing how they grow and develop throughout the season, throughout the multiple seasons that we've been together,” Bornstein said. “That's the most rewarding part, kind of saying, 'Oh, I'm going to take this guy under my wing and really teach him the ropes,' kind of like guys did to me in the Chivas days. Jesse Marsch and Ante Razov and Jim Curtin, a handful of other guys, took us young guys -- Sacha and myself -- and really taught us what it took to be a good pro and to have a long and illustrious career. I try and do those thing with these players.
 
“I don't know if those seeds have come into fruit just yet. There's still a lot of young guys on this team. Maybe in a few years I'll be seeing these guys play in Europe and for other big teams, and I'll be able to say, 'Oh, I was a part of that, and I helped that guy get to where he is.' But on a daily basis, you see the growth, and that's really important as well.”
 
Hendrickson, who was Bornstein's (and Kljestan's) teammate at Chivas USA for a short spell before a trade sent him to Columbus early in the 2006 season, loves what he sees.
 
“He's played in big leagues, he's played for his national team, and he's a very humble guy and uses what he has learned to play it forward and help younger players,” he said of Bornstein. “He has aspirations, I think, of being a coach. I remember when I was in my my latter years of playing [while with the Crew], being that extension to Sigi [Schmid] was very key in my decision to become a head coach. Because I learned so much and I enjoyed teaching the younger players so much out of my experience. He thought he'd go along that path, and it's good. ...
 
“His soccer IQ is very high, and I see him being a successful coach one day, if he continues to have that drive to be a coach.”
 
Vanney sees the same qualities in Kljestan and has encouraged him to become more vocal.
 
“I know he wants to be in the coaching world some day, so we've really kind of green-lighted him to help him develop that voice inside the team,” he said. “It's his experiences, his ability to connect with people inside of a group. I think he's genuine, he cares. There's all these things that matter when you want to have a leadership role that I think has [with Kljestan] been valuable for us and out group.”
 
Kljestan, along with Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, serves as the Galaxy's staff's on-field proxy.
 
“It's about being an organizer, so making sure that tactically we're not exposing ourselves, that we're trying to manage the game and trying to really boss the game with the ball. And that depends and relies on people being in the right position. So over the course of so many years and playing in hundreds and hundreds of games, you gather that experience, and it seems like nothing can surprise you out there anymore. You have this calmness that you've done it all before, you know what's coming and you can try to help the younger guys be prepared and try to have the right mentality, whether that's closing out games or you're still chasing the game at the end.
 
“I try to do that as much as I can during training, as well. ... You've got to be on top of things, and you can't just be doing whatever you want. You have to do what's best for the team. I think that's part of coaching, it seems like it comes easy, bit that's just gathered with experience over all those years. ... [Coaching is ] something I've definitely thought about. I think it's also something that has come natural to me. Where that lies in the future, I think, is still to be written and still to be decided.”

Earning respect in Europe
 
Their journeys began in Orange County, where they competed in club ball and in Orange County's powerhouse Sunset League -- Bornstein at Los Alamitos (which he led to a Southern Section championship) and with Irvine Strikers, Kljestan at Huntington Beach and with JUSA -- and diverged in college, with Bornstein staying home at Cal Poly Pomona and then UCLA and Kljestan heading east to play for Manny Schellscheidt at Seton Hall.
 
Bob Bradley brought them together as he reconstructed Chivas USA after its horrific 4-22-6 debut campaign, grabbing Kljestan in the first round and Bornstein in the fourth round of the MLS SuperDraft.
 
It was, as Kljestan puts it, a perfect situation. There were mentors aplenty, so many of them future coaches -- Bradley brought in Marsch, Claudio Suarez, Carlos Llamosa and Razov to a group that already included Francisco Palencia, and Carey Talley, Sasha Victorine, Marcelo Saragosa, Paulo Nagamura, Zach Thornton and Curtin would arrive in later seasons -- and both found starting spots right away.
 
“I just really wanted to soak in all of their experience and learn from them,” Bornstein said. “I really feel like I was just a sponge at all times, learning from the coaching staff, learning from the older players, and at the same time just trying to survive. ... All the experiences of that season were amazing. I learned so much about what it takes to be a pro on a daily basis, coming in and putting in the work, just everything that not everyone sees on a daily basis of what it takes to be a professional and stay at the top level.”
 
Bradley converted Bornstein, an attacking player in college, to left back, Kljestan played higher up the flank, and they combined for six goals and 11 assists, finished 1-2 in the Rookie of the Year balloting, and Bradley soon brought both into the U.S. national team, with both playing roles in Gold Cup successes and the stunning showing at the 2009 Confederations Cup and Bornstein getting two starts in the 2010 World Cup.
 
Bornstein totaled 38 caps but wasn't called in after Bradley stepped down in 2011. Kljestan compiled 52 caps, making his final appearances in the Yanks' failed 2018 World Cup qualifying run.
 
Both were integral pieces during the Goats' four strong seasons before Preki, who succeeded Bradley in 2007, stepped down, Marsch and Suarez retired, and Curtin and Talley departed after the 2009 campaign. That was, for all intents, the end of Chivas USA, although the club soldiered on another five seasons.
 
Kljestan left at mid-season in 2010 for Anderlecht and Bornstein at season's end for UANL Tigres. Acclimation wasn't simple but the toil was valuable.
 
“American soccer wasn't as widely respected as it is now across Europe, so I really had to fight hard to earn my respect,” Kljestan said. “And it took some time. It took me a few months before I really broke into the lineup and then cemented myself as a starter again. And then I had earned the respect of my teammates. That was definitely a challenge.”
 
So was dealing with the pressure that comes with playing for the biggest club in the country, one expected to win trophies every year.
 
“Everything I did became more scrutinized and more important,” he said. “The grocery store that I went to was full of Anderlecht fans who work there, and if we lost a bad game, they had questions about the game. ... That made the consistency part of my game have to become better -- you have to be consistent week in and week out, if you want to be a starter in a team that is vying for a championship every season and playing in Champions League. That part was special, because I relished the opportunity to test myself against the best. And I really found out a lot about myself, as a leader and a person.”
 
Kljestan had been a playmaker with Chivas, but “I quickly realized they had much better attacking players, and the way I fit into the team was as more of a box-to-box midfielder who was willing to do more of the dirty work and cover a lot of ground and connect passes and be the guy who has the pass before the pass that leaves the final play.”
 
'The best time of our lives.' Living in Brussels, which as home to NATO and the European Union serves as the continent's de facto capital, was a treat, too.
 
“Those are very formative years,” he said. “I'm lucky, because my wife, Jamie, went with me right away. We weren't even engaged or anything yet, still just dating, but we had been together for a few years. And she gave up her acting career to move to Europe with me. And, you know, that was the best time of our lives. I love being a dad and having kids and raising kids and being part of that family, but we just had so much fun back then, traveling through Europe on my days off and adventuring together in the city, in the country, getting to know people, getting to know each other, and I look back on that experience with really, really fond memories of really good times.


 
“And holidays away from home, having family visit us for Thanksgiving and Christmas, those times are important to me. I could talk about that all day. It was a really, really formative experience.”
 
Kljestan made 180 appearances, scoring 25 goals and assisting 21 more, in four and a half seasons for Anderlecht, where he won three Jupiler League and four Belgian Supercup titles and played in three UEFA Champions League competitions. He departed in 2015, reuniting with Marsch, who had just been hired as Red Bulls coach.
 
“Jesse was the main reason why I signed with the New York Red Bulls,” he said. “There had been a changing of the guard, so to speak, at Anderlecht, where a lot of younger players were coming up. And it was time for a lot of older players to move on. Jesse and I had always been in touch, an he told me that it was a possibility he'd be getting that job and if he did get that job, I would be the first player he'd try to sign.”
 
The Kljestans had just had the first of their two children “and were ready to be back in the States and be a little closer to family,” and his three seasons with Red Bulls were the finest of his career. He totaled 51 assists -- leading MLS in 2016 with 20 assists -- as the club won 50 games, two regular-season Eastern Conference crowns and a Supporters' Shield and reached a U.S. Open Cup final.
 
He then spent two seasons at Orlando City, which went 17-37-14 and finished last in the East in 2018 and ahead of only first-year FC Cincinnati in 2019.
 
“I got to tell you, that was a difficult moment in my career,” Kljestan said. “I went from the highs of New York to the lows of Orlando. It was a difficult period just because it was not a great group of guys that I played with down there, it wasn't a great organization, and it seemed like we were facing an uphill battle at all times.”
 
Returning home made things right again, even if the Galaxy has struggled to find a winning formula, and Kljestan calls it “the perfect last chapter of my career.”
 
“I was fortunate to play in front of my friends and family for the first four and a half years of my career, and now the latter part of my career, being able to play here again,” he said. “I love playing at Dignity Health Sports Park. It feels like a second home to me. It's a special place, and the only challenge is trying to get, like, 20 tickets to every game and making sure that I make time to see everybody.”
 
Soaking up life in Mexico
 
Bornstein's travels enabled him to greater identify with his ancestry. His mother was Mexican but hasn't been in his life since he was 3, cutting off his access to the culture, and a season in Israel, before joining the Fire, provided greater ties to his Jewishness.
 
His first months in Monterrey weren't easy.
 
“I chose Mexico because I felt that I hadn't connected with that part of my culture, my heritage, my life ever while I was in California,” he said. “And I went into that situation a little naïve, because I didn't speak the language and didn't know the culture very well, and it was a bit overwhelming upon my arrival there.”
 
It took him a year to become comfortable, on and off the field, “and I can honestly say I wasn't playing up to the standard.”
 
“I just felt a little overwhelmed and quickly found myself on the bench,” he said. “I think all of that, though, helps in terms of overcoming the adversity and continuing to grow as a person. The training sessions and playing with very good players at Tigres and [while on loan to] Atlante definitely helped me grow as a player, even though I wasn't getting so much playing time. It really set me up well for getting to Queretaro when I finally did [in 2014, initially on loan] and to kind of make a rebound back into a starting lineup and competing on a daily basis.”
 
Bornstein joined Tigres just as it was taking off under Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, and it won its first league title in 29½ years in his second campaign, although he never saw the field.
 
“That experience was amazing, to be part of that,” he said. ”I wasn't playing in the games, but I felt like part of it. I was training all the time, I was there, and celebrated it with the team and it was a great experience. And I had the opportunity to play in Copa Libertadores. How many Americans can say they've competed in Copa Libertadores? Although my experience was limited in terms of playing time, I soaked it all in, grew so much as a player and as a person. I learned Spanish. I learned the culture. I love the city, I love the people. It was amazing, and I was able to connect with this other side of my upbringing that I really didn't ever get to experience.”
 
'I learned to be a lot better.' His game broadened deeply as he adjusted to the Mexican game.
 
“The MLS was a lot more physical,” Bornstein said. “Guys closed spaces down They were hard-nosed, hard-working, and that's all I knew before I arrived in Mexico. And I found that the players [in Mexico] are very technical. If you just ran at guys defensively, they'd just pass around you or find ways of getting around you. So I learned to be a lot better in terms of my technical skills, to read the game a lot better and not just use speed and endurance to have success.
 
“I noticed that if you were a guy who could read the game, play technically and make it hard on players, especially the guys who are very technical and very fast, you could get in their head and shut them down. And so the mentality I took was I was always going to be that guy who was going to be a menace. Like a bee buzzing around, making it hard for [your foe] and try to take him out of the game ... never letting these guys see that they could beat me. That went a long way within the Mexican league.”
 
Everything came together at Queretaro. and he became a force on Los Gallos Blancos' backline, prospering under another top coach -- Victor Manuel Vucetich -- and contributing mightily to the club's first major titles, the Copa MX in 2016 and SuperCopa MX in 2017. He scored a celebrated goal that sent the team past Pachuca and into the 2015 Clausura final, the club's first top-tier title-home and home, endearing him to the faithful.
 
It was a glorious time for Bornstein. He met his wife in town -- Juliana, a corporate lawyer from Brazil -- and they had two daughters, and their presence “gave me renewed motivation to be on the field, to keep getting better, to provide for them.”
 
He left in 2018 for a season with Maccabi Netanya, making 36 appearances in all competitions and becoming a team leader, an “amazing, amazing experience” that was amplified by the presence of his family.
 
“At that point, I had a lot of experience of what I learned in Mexico, in the U.S. national team, the World Cup, everything, and I shared that with a lot of my teammates,” he said. “And I think although I was a brand new player there, a lot of the players really looked up to me and were always asking me questions about different things. And we grew as a team very quickly.”
 
He'd “always felt in my heart” that he wanted to return to MLS, and the opportunity to go to Chicago was a big plus for his wife, who had been running her law firm from Israel, nine hours ahead of Queretaro. Juliana and his daughters were with him at first, then returned to Mexico as she worked to grow her business.
 
“I'm visiting when I can and they're visiting when they can,” he said. “It's extremely tough. I like to think of myself as a hands-on person -- and dad, especially. So to be away from my wife and the girls is not easy, but, luckily, we have FaceTime and we talk everyday and are constantly in touch.
 
“But it's hard. I won't lie about that. But it is also kind of necessary, because we're both working parents. We're overcoming adversity in this that we're doing. But we look at it as an investment in our future, but, more importantly, in our daughters' futures.”
 
Reconnecting in coaching school
 
What's next? Coaching appears likely, although it's too early to be sure. They completed their B-license work last December in Orlando, a reunion both cherished.
 
“It was fun to share the experience of being a rookie that really contributed to the success of the team [at Chivas] ... and then we broke into the national team together, and so we spent those first four years making each other better just by the sheer amount of training sessions we had together. It was fun to have that other guy that not only challenged you, but also like worked with you, you know? That was always fun and it was great to see that Johnny's still playing today.
 
“We've had different stages in our lives and we haven't been together for a while, but we did do the U.S. Soccer coaching course together and it was pretty fun to connect [again].”


 
Bornstein recalls “both [of us] just learning so quickly and trying to soak everything in, and then to watch him go and play in Belgium and around the world and have a lot of success and then come back to the MLS and be the assist leader and have a lot of success and see his growth. I was always proud to say, like, 'Wow, I played with him way back when,' and to see that he's still doing it. It also makes me proud to know that we came in together and we're both just continuing to be a positive influence on the players around us.
 
“More than anything, I'm just so happy and proud for him to have grown into the man and the player he is today.”
 
Bornstein has taken concrete steps to becoming a coach. This coming college season will be his second as a volunteer assistant with Northwestern University's men's team.
 
“I've been very lucky to not only play [for some great coaches], but to be able to learn from them,” he said. “For the future of my career in soccer, whether it goes into coaching or whether it goes into something else, I can take bits and pieces of everything I've learned from all of these guys over those years and use them to do whatever I end up doing in soccer.”
 
That day, he hopes, isn't nearing anytime soon.
 
“I think there's only four of us left from that 2006 class,” he said, “so my true goal is just outlast all of them. I'll outlast all of them. I'm going to go out and try and do that. I mean, my goal is just to outlast Sacha.”

Photos: Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire, LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Michael Janosz/ISI Photos

2 comments about "Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan, rookie stars at Chivas USA in 2006, still have lots to bring to game".
  1. George Vecsey, July 29, 2022 at 11:07 a.m.

    Great article by Scott French, about two old pros. So nice to catch up with them, and to know they are still in the game.  American soccer has expanded so much since they came into it, and it's great to read all the names of their friends and colleagues, all over the place. Thanks for this highly readable update.  George Vecsey

  2. :: SilverRey ::, August 7, 2022 at 12:43 p.m.

    “The MLS [sic] was a lot more physical,”
    fixed it for you

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