Talking Soccer At STAPLES Center

SOCCER-WORLD/Few NBA teams have as many soccer fans on their roster as the Lakers.

Here’s the short list:

- Kobe Bryant loves the game he grew up playing in Italy, and still follows international and club soccer closely. The world’s best basketball player has soccer skills, too.
- Pau Gasol is from Barcelona, Spain, home to some of the world’s greatest players and one of the world’s best club teams (FC Barcelona, also Kobe’s favorite squad).
- Sasha Vujacic played soccer in his native Slovenia and while playing professional basketball in Italy as a teenager.
- Adam Morrison is possibly the NBA’s best FIFA 2010 (video game) player, while Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton aren’t far behind. The three are occasionally joined by Lamar Odom four two-on-two games of FIFA on the team plane.

There are plenty of soccer players that are big fans of the Lakers as well, including respective stars of L.A.’s two Major League Soccer clubs: David Beckham (L.A. Galaxy) and Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA). Both players attended Friday evening’s Lakers loss to the Mavericks, and are bracing for a big L.A. soccer showdown on Sunday afternoon (2 p.m., Galaxy @ Chivas USA on ESPN2).

This in mind, we spent some time chatting with Bornstein about how Kobe’s soccer skills help his hoops game, the massive goal the defender scored to send the USA to the World Cup and how it’s made him a hero in Honduras (the Honduran President called him).

Bornstein, a big Lakers fan who grew up in Torrance, CA (before moving to Los Alamitos in Orange County) and starred at UCLA, sat down with us at halftime. Here’s a transcription of our conversation:

San Jose Earthquakes vs Chivas USAMT: So when you sit here and watch Kobe, do you recognize how some of his body movement is similar that which you might see on the soccer field?
Bornstein: Oh yeah, whenever I watch Kobe, he’s more free flowing than many of the other players. He moves around the court very similar to how you react when you’re on the soccer field. You also see that with Steve Nash, another player who’s very interested in soccer and grew up with a soccer mentality. They incorporate that into their basketball game and obviously they’re really great players.

MT: And I suppose it goes the other way with you and your USA National Team teammates, who often have an edge athletically on other countries as many Americans played other sports – like basketball – growing up?
Bornstein: I completely agree with that. I played every sport growing up – baseball, basketball, football, soccer. My body type was such that I fit into soccer the best. I’m obviously not that tall (about 5-9 and 1/2) but I can dunk a tennis ball.

MT: I know Kobe’s been to a few Galaxy games…
Bornstein: Yeah, he’s friends with David Beckham and Beckham’s coming to America has brought out a couple of big time athletes in other sports, but it would be amazing to see Kobe come to a Chivas game wearing Chivas gear. I think it’s great when other sports support each other in the same city; I try to go to as many Dodgers and Lakers games as I can. We all are competing for the same goal – to win championships.

MT: I know that everybody’s excited for the coming World Cup this summer in South Africa, particularly with the full coverage on ESPN and ABC all in HD…
Bornstein: Definitely. ESPN coming in is huge for soccer, and we’re already seeing more and more highlights on SportsCenter, which may show that there are more and more fans in America. The World Cup can only keep that going.

MT: Well as you know, there are several big soccer fans on the Lakers, including not just Bryant but also Pau Gasol, Sasha Vujacic, Adam Morrison and others.
Bornstein: Pau’s squad (Spain) is pretty unbelievable.

MT: And you happened to beat them in the Confederations Cup.
Bornstein: They hadn’t lost in 35 games, so that was crazy. They have talent that is just in another class, but beating them showed some of the progress that we’ve made in America. Hopefully we’re able to have more of those games that we can prove our worth. Maybe we can have USA vs. Spain, Kobe vs. Pau, whatever it is … hopefully the USA is on the winning end.

MT: So tell us about the massive goal you had against Costa Rica (on October 14) to put Team USA into the World Cup in first place in your group.
Bornstein: I actually played forward growing up, so you get a feel for what it takes to just play soccer. I was in the right place at the right time during that goal, and I actually am usually not in the box for corner kicks because I’m one of the smaller guys. But in the 95th minute, we got a corner kick and it was our last chance. So I looked at some of my teammate and was like, ‘Hey man I’m going to go in the box, because there are literally 30 seconds left and this might be it.’ And so I went, and it paid off.

MT: It was a great goal, and it not only put you into first, but it put Honduras ahead of Costa Rica in the standings and got Honduras into the World Cup for the first time in years. If people haven’t heard the Honduran soccer announcers reaction to your goal yet, they’re missing one of the all-time great calls. Pure emotion. It’s awesome. I don’t think you’ll ever be paying for a hotel room in that country…
Bornstein: That call from the Honduran announcers is just unbelievable, because that goal might have meant more for them than any goal ever has. It had been 28 years since they’d been in the World Cup. Funny to think I’m just trying to score a goal for the US, and it has such implications across the whole political scheme of Honduras. The President (Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales) actually did invite me for a paid vacation to Honduras. It’s a beautiful country – we were there about three weeks ago – and literally five minutes after I scored the goal, he came out on the National radio broadcast in Honduras and said that my goal is the biggest in Honduras history and that whenever I want to come to his country, I’m more than welcome.

MT: That’s awesome.
Bornstein: I’m looking forward to going, I’ll tell you that much. But right now I’m focused on this Sunday, which is actually the Chivas – Galaxy game on ESPN at 2:00 p.m. It’s probably the biggest series that’s ever taken place in MLS. Any time the SuperClasico takes place – that’s what we call it any time the two L.A. teams play – the crowd is great and the energy is high, but to have MLS Cup implications on the line makes it out of control. Anyone who can make it should be there.

MT: Sounds like it. Best of luck on Sunday.
Bornstein: Thanks a lot.