When U.S. U-20 midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo steps on the field at the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan, she will be continuing a family tradition that began 28 years ago. That is when her father, Angelo, represented the USA at the 1984 Olympics.
There are many factors that come together to produce an elite soccer player. Good genes are one of them.
And there is no doubt that U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo has soccer in her DNA.
She is the daughter of Angelo DiBernardo, a star at Indiana University in the 1970s where he won the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player before going on to play for the Los Angeles Aztecs and New York Cosmos in the NASL in the early 1980s. He earned 20 caps and scored three goals for the U.S. Men’s National Team, playing in World Cup qualification games for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and in two matches for the USA in the 1984 Olympics.
But a player is not made of chromosomes alone, and like all of her teammates, DiBernardo had to mix the natural talent with hard work and mental fortitude to earn a spot on the 21-player Women’s World Cup roster.
“She has a tremendous engine,” said U.S. U-20 head coach Steve Swanson. “She can get up and down the field and she’s a workhorse for our team.”
Still, DiBernardo gives much credit for her soccer success to her dad.
“He’s the most important role model in my career,” said DiBernardo. “He’s been my coach ever since I was little and he’s the reason why I play soccer. He has certainly set a high bar with soccer success and I want to follow him if I can.”
Vanessa has no brothers, just an older sister, so it seems that she was destined to carry on the family tradition.
“I’m like his little boy,” said DiBernardo. “I think he wanted me to be a boy but he got two girls so I’ve been kicking a soccer ball as long as I can remember.”
Vanessa admits to not seeing many highlights of her dad’s playing days, but from what she has been told, the two have similar styles and she is more than happy to emulate him on the field.
Angelo grew up in Argentina in a family of Italian descent before moving to the USA when he was 16 years old, and Vanessa seems to have benefited from a mixture of those two world-famous soccer cultures (which have been made even more potent by the culture of excellence and competitiveness of the U.S. women’s game). She’s a wonderfully skillful player but also brings some grit to the U.S. midfield.
“I’ve heard he was skillful and quick,” said DiBernardo, who will wear the number 10 shirt for the USA during the Women’s World Cup. “I’m a more possession-oriented player and I like to keep the ball. From what I’ve seen from the videos, he had those qualities, as well.”
Vanessa is quick to add that she also takes after her mom, Pat.
“I’d say I’m a mix,” she said. “My mom smiles and laughs at lot, like me, but I’m stubborn like my dad.”
Those qualities have endeared her to both her teammates and coaches on the U.S. team as there’s rarely a time when she’s not smiling. Even during a hard training session, she can be seen grinning from ear to ear while the stubbornness shows in her work rate. It’s clear that she loves the game.
Vanessa says that while she’s received great soccer advice from her dad over the years, it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost unspoken.
“Sometimes he’ll have things to say after a game and other times he’ll know that I know what he’s going to say so he doesn’t say it,” said Vanessa. “But when I made this World Cup Team, he was really happy and really proud of me.”
DiBernardo was called into her first national team camp in the summer of 2011 and followed that up with a banner sophomore season at Illinois. She scored 17 goals as a sophomore, the most for an Illinois player since 1999, and was selected as an All-American. That set the plate for her ascension into the U.S. team and more recently, a place in the starting lineup.
“She gives us a quality linking player,” said Swanson. “She can distribute the ball really well, she can get out of pressure really well and she can make great penetrating runs from the midfield, which you don’t see that often from players her age. She makes good decisions on when to go and is a great final passer of the ball.”
DiBernardo says that it took a while for her to adjust to the level of play and the environment of international competition but that she is pleased at the place she is in now as a person and a player.
“The national team is of course very different than any other level we’ve played at,” said DiBernardo. “The speed of play is faster, the physical dimension is raised and I think it took me until Panama (during CONCACAF qualifying) and then a few camps into 2012 to get comfortable and be able to play like I want to play. I’m a little bit of a shy person and maybe it takes me longer to get used to new situations than others.”
“It’s been great to see her over the course of this past year, getting more and more confident every camp,” said Swanson. “I’m excited about her, not for just this tournament, but I think she’s got great potential down the line.”
Fortunately for the USA, DiBernardo is finding her groove at the right time, and when she stops for a moment to consider that she is getting to wear the jersey of her country, just like her dad, it does give her pause.
“Not a lot of girls get to play in a World Cup at any level, so this opportunity is special,” said DiBernardo. “But considering that my dad played in the Olympics and now 28 years later I am getting to represent my country and follow in his footsteps, that’s something I’ll always cherish.”