- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Honduran boos directed toward the U.S. soccer team quickly turned to cheers every time the ball came to the feet of U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein.
Whether to cheer or boo should have been an easy blue-and-white decision for Honduras fans, but despite wearing the white jersey of the opposing team, Honduras fans couldn't possibly boo Bornstein.
After all, the 25-year-old native of Torrance, is a national hero in Honduras even if he has stepped foot in the country only once to play a match against the Catrachos.
The footprint he left on Honduras when he headed home Robbie Rogers' corner kick on Oct. 14 at RFK Stadium in Washington to give the U.S. a 2-2 tie against Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifying match is still being felt throughout the country. The goal catapulted Honduras into third place in the CONCACAF qualifying group and sent it to the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
The kid from Torrance instantly was adopted by the hundreds and thousands of people who swarmed the streets of Tegucigalpa in celebration.
Three months after the goal, which was basically meaningless for a U.S. team that already had qualified for the World Cup, Bornstein was still enjoying rock-star status in the eyes of Honduras fans.
The friendly between the U.S. and Honduras on Saturday night at the Home Depot Center was a love fest as far as Bornstein was concerned. The mostly Honduras crowd of 18,626 cheered every time Bornstein put a foot on the ball, even applauding him when he faked Honduran midfielder Roger Espinoza in the first half.
There were a few Honduras jerseys with Bornstein's name on the back and Bornstein and U.S. soccer took advantage of the timing to auction off the shoes he wore the night of the Costa Rica game on eBay with the proceeds going to the Red Cross relief efforts in Haiti.
Bornstein, who plays for Chivas USA and went to Cal Poly Pomona and UCLA, was one of the few bright spots for the U.S., which was playing without most of its stars and was left to play a man down when defender Jimmy Conrad, another former UCLA player, was ejected in the 17th minute for his second yellow card after he took down Jerry Palacios in the penalty area.
After that, Bornstein was forced to play center back and at times seemed to be the only player on the field who had any business being on the World Cup roster.
While Honduras fans had plenty to cheer during a one-sided 3-1 win, Honduras coach Reinaldo Rueda understood the fans' affinity for Bornstein whenever his name was called.
"The goal on October 14 is something that will forever be remembered by the Honduran people," Rueda said through an interpreter. "It was important for our qualification to the World Cup and the fact that the crowd was cheering for him showed the kindness and gratitude of the Honduran people for that goal. It showed the human side of the Honduran people that they would put aside the game and cheer for the player and the person."
During the week as the U.S. team practiced through the rain in Southern California, Bornstein was cheered by Honduras fans who came to watch practice.
"It's great that they think of Johnny that way," Conrad said. "It's usually just us that think of Johnny that way. It's nice for them to come out and show him that respect. We teased him about it but it's great."
Bornstein still has a hard time comprehending his fame in a country he has only been to once and hadn't thought much about before his now legendary goal.
"It's been crazy," Bornstein said. "A lot of the fans still write me on Facebook and they say, 'You're a hero to us' and 'Thank you for the goal' and I still can't believe the president made that speech and declared that next day a national holiday."
That's right, Roberto Micheletti, the country's interim president, declared a national holiday the day after Bornstein's goal and offered him an all-expenses-paid trip to the resort area Islas de la Bahia. "We'll bring this gringuito who scored on the header," Micheletti said. "He doesn't need a visa to come here to Honduras."
Bornstein was the last player to leave the Home Depot Center on Saturday night after being surrounded by the American media and then Honduran reporters. Though Bornstein doesn't speak Spanish he tried his best to answer questions from reporters still fawning over the man responsible for sending their country to the World Cup.
"I can't believe that something as simple as a soccer goal could have such an impact on so many people and an entire country," Bornstein said. "It's pretty exhilarating to know that I'm a part of that for a country like Honduras. I hear it's a beautiful country. I would love to go there one day and see what it's all about."
According to the president, the "gringuito" has an open invitation whenever he's ready.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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