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Vanessa DiBernardo sets sights on NWSL, USWNT

Illinois senior Vanessa DiBernardo hopes to play in the NWSL and for the USWNT. (Photo Copyright Arianna Grainey for The Equalizer)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo was one of three players still in college who were brought into head coach Tom Sermanni’s U.S. women’s national team camp ahead of last week’s 7-0 victory over Mexico at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. DiBernardo, a senior at the University of Illinois, was a late camp replacement for Megan Rapinoe, who was resting a heel injury. Though DiBernardo, a two-time NSCAA All-American, did not play against Mexico on Sept. 3, she still found it an edifying experience.

The Equalizer caught up with DiBernardo three days after the Mexico match at the Arizona State University Sun Devil Classic, where the Fighting Illini fell in overtime to ASU 4-3 on the first night of the tournament (University of Arizona and the University of Kansas completed the quartet).

DiBernardo, a U-20 Women’s World Cup champion last fall in Japan, said her first full national team camp was a learning experience.

“I learned how the environment is and how they play and their mentality. I thought it was really good for me to take in everything,” she said.

Specifically, DiBernardo highlighted the key difference from the senior national team with her regular Big Ten playing level. “That’s their job. It’s not college. It’s not like you’re going to school and playing. They play for their job. They put so much effort into it. Just the bar and the level is so much higher.”

DiBernardo, through FIFA’s ancestry rules, also would qualify to play for Italy and Argentina, where her father Angelo–a former U.S. international–was born. She was adamant that “I want to try to play for the U.S.”

Interestingly, she said that neither country ever contacted her to play for them. Italy’s new national team coach Antonio Cabrini—the former 1982 World Cup winning defender for Italy, seems to be very focused on building a squad primarily from the Italian women’s league—Serie A—based on comments he has made to coaches and the media. At the European Championships this summer in Sweden, he called in only four players from abroad (two of them goalkeepers), two from Switzerland and two from Germany, and not bringing in long-time Italian–American goalkeeper Anna Picarelli, now with Pali Blues.

Argentina, qualifiers at Women’s World Cups in 2003 and 2007, have been surpassed of late as the No. 2 team in CONMEBOL to Brazil by Colombia. Argentina’s women’s program needs funding and direction to develop and is still primarily reliant on amateur players; it is not ready to be fishing for diaspora. Still, both countries might revisit their recruiting policies towards diaspora once they realize the talent that could have helped their programs advance.

DiBernardo became animated when discussing her goals after college, which include playing professionally.

“I want to play in the NWSL League here in America. I’ll enter into the draft and see what happens.” She said that she would be interested in playing overseas but not to the exclusion of NWSL—perhaps combining both, as FC Kansas City’s Erika Tymrak is doing with Bayern Munich, Portland Thorn’s Tobin Heath is doing with PSG and Seattle Reign’s Megan Rapinoe is doing with Lyon.

DiBernardo is a very skilled attacking midfielder who constantly sets the pace of play for the University of Illinois. Her passing skills are exquisite; she plays rapidly but is never rushed. Former Netherlands superstar Johann Cruyff once said that soccer was a game played with the brain, rather than with the feet. DiBernardo embodies that logic and would be an asset to any professional team that needs an intelligent player to guide midfield play.

Arizona State University head coach Kevin Boyd, who once recruited Alex Morgan to the University of California before he left for the ASU job, said simply about DiBernardo, “she’s a very special player.” Vanessa DiBernardo is one to watch not only for end of season NSCAA awards but during the 2014 NWSL draft.

Against Arizona State, down 2-0 on the hour mark, DiBernardo started her team’s comeback by scoring on a penalty kick after a foul in the box was called on ASU. Three minutes later, Janelle Flaws scored the first of her two goals. Tied 3-3 at the end of regulation, sophomore Cali Farquharson scored her second goal of the game in the 107th minute to give the home team the win. Farquharson, who received All Pac-12 Freshman honors on 10 goals and 4 assists in 2012, new leads the Sun Devils (3-1-0) with 6 goals in 4 games. Senior Devon Marshall scored the other two Sun Devil goals. DiBernardo now has two goals and three assists in four games on the season for the 3-2-0 Illini, and tallied 36 goals with 15 assists in 58 games over her first three seasons.

On Sept. 8, Arizona State took the tournament title with a 4-0 defeat of the University of Kansas. Devon Marshall scored another brace while Farquharson and Blair Alderson each scored once. The University of Arizona took second place after a 1-1 tie with the University of Illinois, in which DiBernardo scored her third goal of the season.

Tim Grainey is an occasional contributor to Equalizer Soccer.  His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham was released earlier this month.  Get your copy today.


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