A member of the Chicago Red Stars for her entire professional career, Vanessa DiBernardo has notched the team record for minutes played while setting her sights on a so-far elusive league championship.
For Vanessa DiBernardo, the path to professional soccer involved honing her strong technical skills under the guidance of her father.
The 30-year-old is a midfielder for the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League. A native of Naperville, Illinois, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which inducted her into its athletics hall of fame in 2020.
Her father, Angelo DiBernardo, was a professional soccer player for Major League Soccer and the former North American Soccer League, as well as a member of the USA men’s national team that competed at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
“Dad always kept soccer balls around the house,” Vanessa DiBernardo recalls.
Both she and her older sister started playing soccer at an early age, but only Vanessa stuck with it after middle school. Her dad, who was her club soccer coach, is her role model.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am in my career,” she says.
DiBernardo was drafted by the Red Stars in the first round in 2014 and served as team captain for several years. She hit the 10,000-minutes-played mark on July 18, 2021, becoming the first Red Stars player to do so and only the sixth NWSL player all-time.
“The people and friends I met along the way have definitely kept me playing,” she says. “I love competing — competing with other people and against other people.”
DiBernardo played for the U-20 and U-23 U.S. women’s national teams, including the team that won the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, a memory she will always cherish.
“We played Germany in the group play, and we lost 3-0. Then, we played them in the final and beat them,” she recalls. “We had a lot of adversity … getting that gold medal was super special to all of us.”
Playing for the national team was invaluable preparation for professional soccer. “It was a challenge, for sure,” she says. “Playing in that kind of environment makes you realize there’s so many little details to the game, and everything is super important.”
DiBernardo, who stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall, says her weakness is the physical side of the game. “Especially in this league, as I got older, I had to learn to adapt and physically hold my own,” she explains.
DiBernardo also has international experience. She was on loan to the Australian team Perth Glory for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, when the team advanced to the final but lost.
“It was a big step for me in getting independent, getting outside of my comfort zone and growing in that way,” she says of her time abroad. “I tell younger players in our team and in the league that if they have the opportunity to play overseas, it’s a really good growing experience.”
A difficult time for her was dealing with a hip stress fracture that led to surgery around 2018. This made her feel alone but also pushed her to grow further and find other ways to be there for her team, she says.
DiBernardo says women’s soccer certainly has grown since she was drafted in 2014.
Back then, the Red Stars played on college athletic fields without locker rooms or showers. Now, the team plays at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois, which seats about 20,000 for soccer games.
In 2020, the NWSL inked a new TV broadcasting deal with CBS and a streaming deal with Twitch. In January, the league and its players association agreed to their first-ever collective bargaining agreement, establishing higher salaries with annual increases and other benefits.
There is more growth to attain, she notes, because players are still underpaid, although they at least make a livable wage now.
Her plans for the future are to keep playing and take it year by year.
“There is a big part of me that wants to win a championship with this club and with this team,” she says. “We’ve gotten so close for so long … that would be great to be able to do before retiring.”
The above appears in the September 2022 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.