Sunday conversation: Vanessa DiBernardo
From the time Vanessa DiBernardo arrived at the University of Illinois in the fall of 2010, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in women’s soccer, it was apparent she was a special talent. Having left a collegiate legacy that included two-All-America awards and a school record for career assists, the midfielder has now taken her game to the pro level with the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Staff writer Jeff Huth caught up recently with DiBernardo to talk about the transition and more:
It didn’t take you long to make an impact with your new team. In the Red Stars’ season opener, your corner kick led to the only goal of the match in a victory against the Western New York Flash. What was that moment like for you?
It was exciting. We were playing in front of the home crowd at Toyota Park, which is not a normal facility we play in. Usually the (MLS Chicago) Fire play there. So I think it was just exciting and very nice to be able to score a goal in front of the home crowd.
The player who scored, Julie Johnston, was a teammate of yours on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the 2012 FIFA U20 World Cup in Japan. Seems like you two make a good tandem.
Yes, we know each other well and we’ve played together so we know our tendencies. We just connect well and we play well together so it’s nice to have her on the team.
You’re a native of suburban Chicago, having grown up in Naperville. Were you hoping that the Red Stars would select you when the NWSL draft took place in January?
I was I guess always hoping to be picked by Chicago. It’s always nice to play in your home city and have your friends and family as support systems close by.
You were chosen with the fourth overall pick, the highest of any player in Illini soccer history. What was your reaction to being selected so quickly?
I was just honored and, again, excited to be able to be playing in my home city. The draft could have gone any sort of way, and I was lucky that Chicago had two picks high in the draft and honored that they chose me as one of those picks.
The Red Stars are becoming Illini North. When your former college teammate, Niki Read, signed with Chicago late last month, she became the third ex-Illini on the roster, along with Jackie Santacaterina. Any more on the way?
I don’t think right now, but you never know with another graduating class. I think it’s just we’re close to the Chicagoland area, and the Illinois soccer team’s a very good team and produces a lot of good athletes. So you never know. I never played with Jackie at Illinois, but I’ve played with her in the past through the different summer leagues, and I’ve played with Niki before at Illinois so it’s just nice to have that comfort and extra I guess bond, you could say, with them.
What are some of the major differences you’ve seen and experienced between college soccer and the pro game?
There’s definitely a few I’ve noticed. It’s a lot more physical and a lot quicker with the pace of the game. You definitely have to make sure you know what you’re going to do with the ball before you get it because otherwise you’ll get, I guess, clobbered (laughs). So I had to adjust in that way, and I’m still learning and getting used to that.
Speaking of physical play, you experienced it first-hand in the season opener, when Flash midfielder Carli Lloyd not only pulled you down from behind, but then struck you in the face. This week, the NWSL announced it had suspended Lloyd for two matches for the incident. In your opinion, was this punishment fair or too lenient? And have you had any communication with Lloyd since that match?
I haven’t spoken with her directly since the suspension, but she apologized to me both on the field after it happened and in a press release after the incident as well. Sometimes that’s a part of the game and players get in the heat of the moment.
We know your final Illini season did not turn out as you had hoped. A major reason was the knee sprain you suffered, sidelining you for seven matches and initially limiting your minutes when you did return. How frustrating was that and how is the knee doing now?
It was definitely very frustrating, especially the initial thought of how bad the injury was — it was not as bad as what it actually turned out to be. So it was definitely frustrating and I had to be very patient with it, but because I was so patient and took good care of it that now it’s doing perfectly fine and I haven’t had any issues with it.
You’re the daughter of one of the best players the game has produced. Angelos DiBernardo played seven seasons for the U.S. National Team and, as an All-American at Indiana, won the Hermann Trophy in 1978 as the nation’s top collegiate player. You’ve spoken before about his impact on your development in the sport. Is he still offering tips?
Oh yes, of course. (laughs) He never stops (laughs), which is definitely very helpful for me and something I should appreciate more than I think I do. But he’s always putting his two cents in and always evaluating my performance and asking how practice is going and stuff. So he’s still very involved in my career.
Tell us about your mother Patricia’s role in all of this? Surely, she’s had a big impact, too, on your career and your development but perhaps in a different way.
She definitely has. She’s definitely my support system. She’s the one who is always telling you, “Good job; you’re doing well.” Just the one with encouragement and making sure I still am enjoying playing the games that I put so much time and effort into. She’s definitely a different role from my father and it’s very, very helpful.
This past week you were selected as the Illini’s female recipient of the Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor. It’s given annually to two senior student-athletes at each member school to recognize academic and athletic excellence. What does this award mean to you?
I’m honored to be receiving this award. It is a great reflection of the Illinois women’s soccer program and how they demonstrate and emphasize both academics and athletics.
We understand you’ll be finishing up on your college degree next fall. What’s your major? What’s left to do? And will you be helping out with your old team when you’re back on campus?
My major is sport management, and I just have really two to three classes that I need to finish up so it’s not even a full semester. And yes, I’ve spoken with (UI coach) Janet (Rayfield) and I think the plan is to help out with the team and possibly just train and be of whatever kind of assistance they need. I’ll definitely be around the team and in that environment.
We know you have aspirations to become a fixture on the U.S. Women’s National Team. It was very much in the news recently when coach Tom Sermanni was fired after just 15 months on the job. What did you make of that development?
It was very shocking as just an athlete, seeing that news and how abruptly the news came out. There’s nothing any of the players can do about it. They’ve just got to learn with the new coaches and develop with that coach. I don’t know much about the situation.
Sermanni was the coach who called you up to the team for a match last September against Mexico as an injury replacement, right?
Yes, he was the coach that called me up to my first camp (before that match) so that’s definitely something that I might miss, but I’ve only been to one camp so I haven’t been in that environment too much.
You’ve gone from the world of a student-athlete to a pro whose sport is her job. What’s that transition been like?
It’s definitely different. The team atmosphere is a little bit different just cause there’s such a wide variety of ages within a team. It’s not a four-year difference like in college. And it’s really a job. It’s your responsibility to take care of your body and eat right and get the right amount of rest. And if you don’t do those things, it’s really hurting you and the team so you really have to take more responsibility for that.
We’re guessing your life is less hectic than it was at the UI? Now that you have more free time, what do you enjoy doing away from soccer.
I wouldn’t say I have that much free time. I’m doing an internship for school. So I go from practice to work every day.
Tell us about the internship.
I’m working at an event-planning company — it’s called agencyEA — in the city. I’m just helping out and learning that kind of environment cause that’s something I’ve always thought about going into a job with.
The World Cup is only a year away. Do you have a feel for your chances of making the U.S. team that will compete in Canada? What will it take?
That would be, I think, a really tough environment to get into. There’s still a lot of older players that are still looking to play in the World Cup — in my position especially — so I don’t know if that is in the future. I don’t have much say in that area. I think the only way to get into that environment is to do well in the league. I think that’s really where they’re looking to see how the players do.
And finally, when your soccer career ends — presumably many years from now — what’s your dream job?
(Laughs). I’m not 100 percent sure. I really haven’t worked much in my life because I’ve played soccer. But event planning maybe, or even coaching I could see myself doing in the future.