Friday, June 18, 2010

Tribal Members Jonathan Bornstein, Benny Feilhaber, and Jonathan Spector Play for Team USA in World Cup


I guess all those soccer teams at the Jewish Community Center lead somewhere!  

The US is in Group C, playing Slovenia at 10 a.m. EST June 18, and Algeria at 10 a.m. EST on Wednesday.


Jewish Players Score In World Cup
Three Jewish players compete for U.S. in the World Cup

June 18, 2010 Cohen
Special to the Jewish Times

Three  Jewish soccer players are on the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Jonathan Bornstein and Benny Feilhaber, both 25, along with Jonathan Spector, 24, comprise what could be the largest Jewish contingent on a single team in the U.S. squad’s history.

Feilhaber’s love of soccer began in his native Brazil and continued to blossom after he moved at age 6 to the United States. When his family  relocated to Irvine in 1997, Feilhaber became a standout midfielder at Northwood High School  and played college soccer at UCLA. He now plays for AGF Aarhus of the Danish  Superliga.

Born and raised in Southern California, Bornstein first kicked a soccer ball at age 3 and hasn’t stopped since. He played high school  varsity soccer all four years and spent two years playing at Cal Poly Pomona before transferring for his final year at UCLA.

Today, Bornstein is a defender for the Major League Soccer franchise Chivas USA, playing in front of his family and friends in Los Angeles. Bornstein is also somewhat of a national hero in Honduras, having scored  the goal for the U.S. against Costa Rica that allowed Honduras to qualify for the World Cup.

Spector, a defender for the English Premier League’s West Ham United,  grew up in Chicago and began his professional career as a teenager, signing with Manchester United when he was just 17. Spector is the grandson of the late Art Spector, the first player to be signed by the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics in 1946.

Playing together is nothing new for Feilhaber and Bornstein. In 2002, the duo helped the Irvine Strikers club soccer team win its first Under-17 National Championship. Two years later, they were  reunited at UCLA and became college roommates, which cemented their already close friendship.

Feilhaber remembers that he and Bornstein “definitely had a special connection” because of their religion from the beginning of their friendship. Plus, says Feilhaber, “It was easy being friends with him because he scored all the goals so I passed him all the balls.”

For his part, Bornstein says that, “When a Jewish holiday comes up,” he and Feilhaber, who still room together when on the road for the U.S. Men’s National Team,“we recognize it and talk about it, but we don’t celebrate too many holidays together.”

That’s because Feilhaber spends the High Holidays with his family.

“My father is Jewish and I have a connection with Judaism through my father and my grandparents. I know our history as a people and embrace being Jewish myself,” says Feilhaber. “Of course, my proudest moment as a  Jew was having my bar mitzvah in front of all my family and friends.”

Feilhaber’s close relationship with his paternal grandfather, who fled Austria in 1938 to avoid Nazi persecution, has strongly affected his identification as a Jew and his connection with Judaism.

“My grandfather was 14 years old when he and his family had to leave all their things behind in Austria. He boarded a ship to Brazil and left  everything he ever knew,” says Feilhaber. “I talk with my grandfather, who still lives in Brazil, often. His story affects my religion as well as how I see the world and my life.”

Bornstein’s relationship with Judaism also stems from his father, a Jew born into an Orthodox family in New York. While Bornstein did not have a bar mitzvah and doesn’t consider himself observant, he did grow up observing Rosh Hashanah and Passover with relatives. He credits his experience representing the U.S. in the 2005 Maccabiah Games for reinforcing his Jewish identity.

“It was an amazing experience. I loved it and not just because I got to play soccer in Israel. It made me realize how fulfilling and enriched  Jewish culture really is,” remembers Bornstein. “I was able to explore my Jewish identity in the Old City, at Masada, at the Dead Sea. I definitely want to return some day.”

Playing alongside Bornstein when the U.S. team won the silver medal? Benny Feilhaber, of course.

“It was an unbelievable feeling playing in the Maccabiah Games,” Feilhaber said. “I competed with the best Jewish players in the world in  a great environment and I was able to visit places that I had only previously heard about. Because  of my family’s history, the Holocaust museum [Yad Vashem] was the most memorable moment of the trip for me.”

The most famous Jewish player to date to represent the United States at the World Cup, Jeff Agoos also played in the Maccabiah Games. A member of the U.S. squad from 1988 to 2003 and of the 1998 and 2002 World Cup teams, Agoos played for the U.S. in the 1989 Maccabiah Games in Israel.

On Bruce Arena’s coaching staff for the U.S. surprise quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup? David Sarachan, who played at Cornell University and then with the Rochester Lancers of the North American Soccer League (NASL) before turning to coaching. Sarachan was also Agoos’ roommate at the Maccabiah Games.

While he never got to play in World Cup because the U.S. failed to qualify during his era, 1972 U.S. Olympic team goalkeeper Shep Messing is currently a color commentator on ESPN Radio broadcasts during this year’s World Cup.

As popular as soccer is in Israel, it has only sent one squad to compete in the World Cup, back in 1970 in Mexico City — before most of today’s star players were even born. This likely has much to do with the  fact that the Israel National Football team, Nivkheret Yisra’el BeKaduregel, has had to qualify through its participation in UEFA (Union  of European Football Associations) since being expelled from the less competitive AFC (Asian Football Confederation) in 1974.

Asked to leave the AFC by other Asian nations, which refused to play against Israel due to the ongoing political situation in the era, Israel  spent the majority of the 1980s in soccer exile, playing against European teams and competing in the European qualification leg for the 1982 World Cup.

For the qualifying tournaments in 1986 and 1990, Israel entered the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). In the playoffs for the 1990 World  Cup, Israel played against, but lost to, Colombia, which qualified from  the South American group.

In 1994, Israel joined UEFA, where it has been competing ever since. UEFA, because it includes the soccer powerhouses Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Portugal, to name just a few, sets an extremely high bar for Israeli qualification for a World Cup. This year, Israel came in fourth in its qualifying group, behind Switzerland and Greece.

Says Reuven “Roby”  Young, the captain of the 1966, 1967 and 1968 Israeli National Teams: “The problem is that the level of the Israeli National Team is not up to par.  We used to play weaker opponents, but not anymore. The European teams are tough. Israel has to get its act together in soccer to qualify.”

According to Mike Woitalla, who has covered the U.S. for Soccer America magazine since its first of six straight appearances in the 1990 World Cup, Bornstein, Feilhaber and Spector could make valuable contributions to the U.S. World Cup campaign.  “While none of them played in the game against England, Coach Bob Bradley may be inclined to bring in Bornstein to spark attacks down the left flank.”

“And despite its good result against England, the U.S. struggled to maintain possession in the midfield,” continues Woitalla. “That problem could be solved by bringing in Feilhaber. He is a skillful, creative player who is capable of dictating the rhythm of the game and making defense-splitting passes. For his part, Spector, like Bornstein, has the  ability to contribute to the attack. He set up two goals in the U.S.’s surprise runner-up finish at last year’s Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, at which the U.S. upset European champion Spain.”

Overall, soccer experts think the U.S. has a good shot —at least in the first round of games.

“The U.S. is in a very favorable first-round group, so they should at  least advance to the round of 16,” says Washington Post soccer columnist Steve Goff. “Beyond that, however, we can’t expect the U.S. to  reach the quarterfinals as they did in 2002, which was the exception rather than the rule. But another first-round failure, as happened in 2006, would be a huge disappointment and a big set-back for the program.”

Feilhaber and Bornstein hope to prove the skeptics wrong. “I think we  have a good chance in the World Cup if we are playing our best football  at the time,” says Feilhaber. “I think our team is good enough to beat anyone on any given day.”

While Bornstein’s family didn’t go to South Africa, “there are 30 or 40 people gathered at my house watching when the U.S. plays, and maybe even groups at multiple houses.”

And for whom is Feilhaber’s grandfather rooting? “I’m pretty sure my grandfather will be rooting for both Brazil and the U.S. to do well, but  if we meet each other some point in the tournament, he will want the U.S. to win, of course.”

Emily Cohen is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.

Israeli Flag Shows Up In Ghana Victory
While Israel was not one of the 32 countries to qualify for the World Cup (they finished third in their qualifying competition), the flag of Israel made an appearance.

After Ghana defeated Serbia in Group D, 2-0, last Sunday, June 13, Ghana defensive player John Pantsil unfurled an Israeli flag and draped himself with the Star of David.

Mr. Pantsil had played for the Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv teams several years ago. One of his teammates, Derek Boateng, played for  the Beitar Jerusalem club.

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