URBANA — Vanessa DiBernardo blends in.
She sits on a patio chair overlooking the Main Quad on the Illinois campus. Trade out that "Illinois Soccer" T-shirt, and the 19-year-old would be another undergrad soaking in a spectacularly sunny weekday afternoon.
Her chameleon ways, you learn quickly, are both a gift and a fault. Of the roughly 500 student-athletes on the Illinois campus, very few have the necessary talent to impact their sport on a national — even an international — level. DiBernardo, a sophomore midfielder on the women's soccer team, can make the biggest impact of all of them.
Yet she dribbles, shoots and scores in virtual anonymity.
On a weekday afternoon, a dozen students sip Espresso Royale lattes in the Illini Union. DiBernardo slides into a seat without a head lifting from a textbook. Let's see Nathan Scheelhaase or Brandon Paul make like the Invisible Man on Green Street. Not happening.
Perhaps it is the tiny 19-year-old's unimposing stature. DiBernardo, who can vacuum a Chipotle burrito bowl faster than you can say "Future All-American," is listed at 5-foot-4. One look, however, and you wonder if soccer heights are measured like football weights and basketball vertical leaps — generously. Or if she was measured while sporting the only pair of cleats she will wear, Nike Vapors.
More likely, DiBernardo's low profile is a byproduct of her personality and sport.
Raise a hand if you've attended an Illinois women's soccer match, or if you knew Janet Rayfield's club enters the 2011 season with a snazzy No. 24 national ranking, or if you knew DiBernardo is on track to play for the U.S. national team. Yes, the same national team that grabbed your attention at the recently completed World Cup.
"I truly believe she has that ability," says Rayfield, a scout with the U.S. national team in Germany in July.
Shhh. It's all a secret. DiBernardo prefers it that way. She is as shy as she is skilled, and the lack of bravado refreshes in an era of jersey popping. DiBernardo simply shrugs when asked about her performance this summer in training camps with U.S. Soccer's U20 and U23 teams, precursors to the national team.
"At first I was a little intimidated," she says. Apparently she was good enough at first, because she earned three more invitations. Likewise, DiBernardo was "surprised" she was able to notch 27 points (11 goals, five assists) and earn a spot on the All-Big Ten first team as a freshman.
"It was as fun and enjoyable as I expected it to be," says the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. "I guess as well as I did, I wasn't expecting that as much."
It is almost as if DiBernardo doesn't know how good she is.
"I think the potential she has to be successful was always there," Rayfield says. "I think she will start to be somewhere where she has expectations for herself to be as successful in her next environment as she was as a freshman here."
That appears to be the next step — convincing DiBernardo she belongs on whatever field she takes. Her mentors include Rayfield, the 10th-year coach who has developed five All-Americans at Illinois, and father Angelo DiBernardo, a member of the U.S. national team for seven years.
They don't want her to blend in. Their mission is to tug that introvert out of Vanessa.
It's like her coach and father read from the same script when describing what they want from DiBernardo when Illinois opens the season at home against Gonzaga on Friday.
"Her attacking presence needs to grow. She needs to demand the ball more," Rayfield says.
"Personally I would like for her to become more of a leader on the field," Angelo says. "I would like to see her demand the ball more."
There won't be a shortage of motivators around DiBernardo. Her father played for the U.S. national team that qualified for the 1980 (when the U.S. didn't attend due to a boycott) and 1984 Olympics and in 20 international matches, back when national teams played only four or five every year. Most riveting, however, was Angelo's professional career with the famed New York Cosmos, where he shared a pitch with the likes of Pele.
"One of the greatest teams that was ever assembled in the United States and the world, if you will," says Angelo, who has coached youth and high school soccer for 35 years. "No. 1, you were going to school every day. You were practicing with that talent, that quality, those personalities. You were learning every day."
After every match, Vanessa can count on a piece of coaching from her father. He asks, "How do you think you played?" and the conversation goes from there.
After a positive result, the dialogue will last a while. After a poor performance, "Sometimes I don't like to hear it," she says with a laugh.
"But he does put in his two cents. And it is helpful. He knows me pretty well. And he's tough on me, I'd say. He'll always think I can do better."
"I'm kind of hard on her," Angelo says. "I think that is because I always played when I was younger and I coached her throughout her career until she went to college. I always expect more and more from her. I sometimes feel that I'm not very fair to her, you know what I'm saying?"
Given his own experience, Angelo knows what it takes to compete at the highest level of soccer. With the right opportunity, he says, Vanessa can develop into that caliber of player.
"She has the skills," he says.
"It's one of my goals," says Vanessa, who hopes to receive an invitation to another U20 training camp in December. The FIFA U20 World Cup is in Uzbekistan in 2012.
There are lofty goals for the Illini this season, as well. It is a faster team — in terms of passing and decision-making in addition to foot speed — and that should lend itself to DiBernardo's gifts as a playmaker in the middle. And opponents will mark her more aggressively. The secret's out there, too.
"Now she's got a little bit of a name, too, and people will try to shut her down," Angelo says. "It's also going to be a harder challenge to repeat last year's season and perhaps have a better year. It's another step on the mountain you have to climb. This step is going to be harder than last year."
"I just want to be better than last year," she says of her personal goal.
But does she have the psychological makeup to make herself the center of the attack? That might determine if DiBernardo can leap from the All-Big Ten first team to a U.S. Soccer roster.
"People talk about the four pillars of the game — physical, tactical, psychological and technical. A player that can solve the 'soccer problems' in two of those ways makes a pretty good player," Rayfield says. "Three of those four make a great college player. If you can solve four of four, I'm putting in a call to the national team coach.
"She's good in all four. And I think she can be great in all four, which would put her at an elite level."