U.S. midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo can rightly consider herself one of the leading young creative talents in women’s soccer back home, with two professional seasons at Chicago Red Stars now to her name, and the on-loan Perth Glory star is gleaning much all around from her current stay in Australia.
Coached as a youngster by her father, the former U.S. international midfielder Angelo DiBernardo, Vanessa went into college as a three-time high school state champion. Remaining relatively local, the Waubonsie Valley High School graduate was a two-time All-American at the University of Illinois, and with Chicago Red Stars taking her at number four in the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft it meant she was the highest-drafted player in her school’s history.
Red Stars head coach Rory Dames predicted at the time she would be one of the league’s best attacking midfielders and after featuring throughout her rookie year she had a growing influence in 2015, with two goals and five assists for the playoff semi-finalists. Now the 23-year-old who earned a senior U.S. Women’s National Team call while still in college is doing her utmost to head into year three of her NWSL career in top condition and high confidence, with a loan spell in Australia’s W-League at Perth Glory occupying her efforts over the past two months.
The Naperville product has been amongst the goals since her switch, with a spectacular long-ranger one of two on her debut in November, and she spoke with positivity about a 2015 which saw her help Chicago to 2nd place in the regular season before her first move to play overseas.
“It has been a good year. It was nice having a year under my belt in the NWSL; it was quite an adjustment as a rookie.
“This year, I knew what to expect a little bit more. Being able to come and play in Australia has also been great; training and having games in the off-season I think is very important and will benefit me for next year.
“Australia is a great country. I can’t help but love the weather; it’s snowing back at home, so I love reliving the summer.”
Although the language difference from back home may be limited to certain subtleties Vanessa’s loan to the Glory has given her a first chance to properly integrate into Australian culture. With Perth, she joined a team who were Grand Final runners-up in 2014 after heading the regular season standings, and although a Finals berth this time has proved a bridge too far the team have played their part in an enjoyably open W-League campaign.
In addition to a compatriot in on-loan Sky Blue FC midfielder Nikki Stanton, Vanessa has had two standout Australian internationals who ply their trade in the NWSL on her side – full-back Caitlin Foord and forward Samantha Kerr (both of Sky Blue). In the case of the latter, Vanessa has only briefly experienced the ex-Western New York Flash standout’s ability this season, as the 21-year-old suffered a foot injury in November which ended her campaign.
Before she departed the 2-0 win at Brisbane Roar, she had a hand in the first of Vanessa’s debut goals, and aside from her razor-sharp forward play she tends to have an influence behind the scenes on game day, as Vanessa describes.
“The (locker room) DJ here with the Glory usually is rotating around. I’ve seen Sam Kerr around the music a lot, though; she has a good taste in pump-up music before games.”
In each of the interviews on here, the idea is to discuss on and off-field aspects with the player but also to find out what music means to them, when travelling to or preparing for games, enjoying it with teammates in different ways, and in their life as a whole. The aforementioned Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord both featured during the inaugural NWSL season, for example, and while Vanessa likes to take in the pre-game tracks in the locker room she explains how her listening habits in general are perhaps somewhat different to many of her counterparts.
“I enjoy all sorts of music, but I probably enjoy country music the best. I will mostly listen to the radio and what is popular at the time.
“I enjoy listening to music, but I actually don’t own an iPod or have music on my phone. I don’t like being the one to choose what I listen to, as strange as that sounds.”
Vanessa is a player familiar to Red Stars boss Rory Dames from her days playing against his Eclipse Select Soccer Club side for youth outfit America’s Soccer Club. She describes playing in Chicago professionally as ‘playing in her backyard’, although now the weather has turned in Illinois a temporary escape to sunnier climes like Western Australia is far from unwelcome!
Despite that, an event which takes place in the city’s Grant Park around the start of August each year, as well as in various other countries, has her thinking of summertime back home.
“This past year I went to a big musical festival in Chicago called Lollapalooza; it has a big variety of music and is three days long. It’s a great atmosphere if you love music.
“I’ve been to a few concerts. I didn’t really start to go until the past few years, which is when I realised that I really enjoy going to them and need to go to more.
“My first concert I ever went to was Rascal Flatts. I’ve also been to Tim McGraw, which was a great concert.”
Having so narrowly missed out on the 2014 NWSL playoffs due to their head-to-head record with Washington Spirit, Chicago made sure of their place last year with a regular-season runners-up spot. Missing multiple established players to World Cup participation, the remaining squad members performed admirably in their absence to give the Red Stars a strong foothold in the league’s leading places.
One of those impressive performers was rookie forward Sofia Huerta, who came up with six goals and three assists on the year. The former Santa Clara standout was the most recent Red Star to delve into the music/soccer mix on here and she told how Chicago’s athletic trainer Cherlyne Carlos often provides the game-day tracks for the team.
Pacey and industrious forward Adriana Leon, who headed to Western New York from Chicago along with New Zealand defender Abby Erceg as part of an off-season trade, was also known to add in her tune choices, and Vanessa reveals another Canadian player who can step up.
“We listen to all sorts of music with the Red Stars; a lot of old but good songs will randomly come on. Rachel Quon is another one that will play the music and she does well with mixing up the genres.
“Otherwise you will mostly see Cherlyne and Dri (Leon) playing the music; they are the most up-to-date with it. I have never been the team DJ; like I mentioned before, I don’t like being the one to choose the music that’s being played.
“I think it’s because I like the surprise aspect of it.”
Ahead of his professional career, Vanessa’s father, Angelo, took the honour of top male collegiate player in the country as he won the prestigious Hermann Trophy in 1978. At Waubonsie Valley High School, Vanessa won IHSA Class AA State Titles in 2007 and 2008, as well as the AAA State Title in 2010, and she had garnered plenty of attention from those in and around the game ahead of her collegiate career getting underway.
As an Illini, she would prosper on the field and in the classroom, receiving the Big Ten Medal of Honor as a senior, which is given to a student-athlete who has attained the greatest proficiency both athletically and scholastically. Involved with the Under-20 and Under-23 National Team while she was a freshman, Vanessa set a school record with four goals in a game with Purdue that year and was later named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
A moment that remains high in her affections to this day is the Big Ten Tournament success in her sophomore year, with Vanessa scoring the overtime winner in the championship game with Penn State. Illinois coach Janet Rayfield, who led the U.S. Under-23 squad containing Vanessa at last year’s Six Nations Tournament in La Manga, had a lasting impact on her and it was certainly mutual.
Rayfield assisted Steve Swanson as he guided the Under-20s to the 2012 World Cup in Japan – Vanessa started every game along the way – and it was a tournament Red Stars defender Julie Johnston recalled the memories and musical backdrop of on here in May 2014. Johnston captained the U.S. to that success and she described in that interview how she and Vanessa both smile when they hear Chris Brown’s ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’, as it takes them back to the celebrations after they had beaten Germany in the final in Tokyo.
In amongst the euphoria that night, the team attended a karaoke bar, with defender Cari Roccaro jokingly claiming recently that she was the star performer on show! Did Vanessa let her vocals loose that night, or has she ever been asked to do so for initiation with any team?
“I actually have never had to get up and sing. I didn’t get up and sing that night at the karaoke bar, but I loved watching everyone else!
“I’m shy when it comes to those things.”
A three-time All-Big Ten First Team Selection, Vanessa helped the Illini to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen in 2013 – their best finish during her four years – despite a knee injury claiming seven games of her senior season. Her call to the senior U.S. camp ahead of the 7-0 win over Mexico in Washington, D.C. also meant missing a game but she still managed seven goals in the orange and blue, as well as a career-best seven assists, which meant setting a new school record with 22 overall.
A recreation, sports and tourism major with a sport management concentration, Vanessa was able to gain an alternative perspective of the game as she served as a student assistant coach at Illinois while completing her undergraduate degree and also training with the Red Stars in 2014. Her 43 goals placed her at number three in school history, and although she went into her rookie NWSL season still hampered by that aforementioned knee injury, she joined a group at the Red Stars with pros who were more than willing to help the youngsters settle in.
Vanessa was a Red Star during their amateur years after they had to withdraw from Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), first appearing in the 2011 Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL). In WPSL Elite the following year, she was joined by 2014 and 2015 teammates in defender Michelle Lomnicki (née Wenino), midfield captain Lori Chalupny, and one other midfielder.
That final player is someone Vanessa identifies as the one she’d turn to if she was ever tasked with recording a song collaboration with a teammate!
“I would probably choose to sing with Alyssa Mautz because she has a very fun and outgoing personality. I would definitely be shy and need some help getting through the song.”
With an older sister, Angela, who would play soccer with her in the basement once upon a time, Vanessa’s childhood played out in the majority of the 90s and into the early years of the 2000s. For so many of the players interviewed on this site who grew up in that kind of period, their response to the question of the first album or single they ever bought is often down the same path as Vanessa’s here!
“I don’t remember exactly the first CD I ever owned, but I could probably guess it was a Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, or Britney Spears album. I enjoyed listening to the boybands and pop music growing up.
“When I hear those songs these days I am surprised I remember the lyrics so well.”
Born in Argentina before moving to the States with his family when he was young, Vanessa’s father played at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles for the U.S. and featured in the qualifying campaigns for the 1982 and 1986 World Cup. At club level, he played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) for the widely-renowned New York Cosmos, having also represented the Los Angeles Aztecs, who were once part-owned by Elton John – music/soccer links are truly everywhere to be found!
While with the Aztecs, Angelo received strong tutelage on his crossing from none other than Dutch legend Johan Cruyff after training sessions. Also playing in the Major Indoor Soccer League, he went on to coach girls’ and boys’ soccer at Waubonsie Valley High School, as well as teaching Spanish.
With her dad also her coach, the balance that Vanessa got from her mother, Patricia, in terms of her approach was more than a little important and she believes it is a key reason why she still plays soccer today. Vanessa details the sporting culture within the environment she was raised in, with a smile at the mention of her father’s impact on her.
“Naperville is a great city to grow up in. Being a suburb of Chicago, I don’t necessarily live in the big city, but I live close to one.
“I went to Waubonsie Valley High School and graduated with around 900 other students. It’s a big soccer town, there are a lot of different clubs within the area and I grew up playing for my dad.
“He played soccer professionally for the New York Cosmos; you could say I learned a lot from him! I loved the competitive environment between the different high schools growing up.
“Whenever rival high schools were playing one another, it didn’t matter the sport, you would always have a big crowd at the games. It was fun to be a student at different sporting events, as well as a player.”
Numerous NWSL players selected out of college in the draft have been at the event in person and subsequently pictured with their new team’s scarf and colours. It is not how it works for everyone, however, and Vanessa was at home when she learned via the Red Stars’ Twitter that she’d been selected.
Julie Johnston was also a pick for Chicago that day and Rory Dames spoke of her and Vanessa as the best defensive and attacking midfielders in the draft. Although ‘JJ’ has ultimately excelled further back, she and Vanessa have been drawing upon their understanding from when they were youth internationals since they reunited at the Red Stars. We saw that link in evidence from the outset in 2014, as Vanessa found the defensive stalwart from a corner to net Chicago’s winner against Western New York.
Just as the team pushed on and reached the semi-final, last season was also a marked progression for Vanessa in terms of productivity and this time with Perth Glory has been an undoubtedly beneficial add-on for her development. Aside from newcomers Melbourne City running away with the Premiership, the W-League has been largely open, and the Glory, who are 8th after ten games, next face Adelaide United in their final home encounter (January 10th).
Vanessa will want to help her team with more of the form she showed with her excellent finish and later penalty in the 4-2 defeat to Sydney FC, to round off this adventure in the best possible on-field fashion. Rory Dames once said that she’ll be the one to decide how much of an impact she’ll have and Vanessa makes reference to a change in her thinking for the better as she assesses her first pro seasons.
“I have learned a lot these past two years, especially after my first year. The season is much longer than a college season and much more physically demanding.
“I learned what it takes to take care of my body in order to play the amount of games we play within the season. I’ve also grown as a player; every game is going to be a battle in the league and playing midfield you are constantly in the action.
“Spending time after practice to work on specific things for your game is a necessity. My mentality has also grown.
“Teams and players are good enough to capitalise on your mistakes, so you always have to be mentally engaged.”
The Red Stars look forward to their home games at Toyota Park this year – Chicago Fire’s home stadium in Major League Soccer and the Red Stars’ home back in WPS, although only occasionally since. Vanessa is one of those who gets to showcase her ability regularly at the 20,000-capacity arena in 2016, but for the concluding part of this interview we’re scaling down her playground!
Her dad once said how she’d enjoyed playing five-on-five indoor soccer when he took her to Argentina and in each interview on here the player is asked to imagine this kind of scenario. The question asks them to select four of their career teammates to be in their fantasy 5-a-side with them, with free choice given on exactly why they make each selection, rather than placing emphasis on it being a definitive ‘best four’.
It’s time to find out who Vanessa came up with when put on the spot, and she starts off by bringing one of the women’s game’s great ambassadors, characters and keepers out of her recent retirement!
“Keeper: Karina LeBlanc – great communicator and solves problems before they happen. Very positive and energetic, which carries over to the field.
“Defender: Julie Johnston – great leader and understands the game well; she is always one step ahead of everyone. A hard-nose defender that makes big time plays to win you games.
“Midfielder: Morgan Brian – we have similar styles of play, which makes it a lot of fun to play with her. Her movement off the ball makes it really easy to find her.
“She plays simple and makes the game look a lot easier than what it is. Forward: Christen Press – great finisher, and that’s exactly what you want in a forward.
“She is constantly putting herself in dangerous positions to score goals, and has the ability to put them away.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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