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U.S. youth international looks to win NWSL crown after losses in 2011, 2012 finals

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – For the final installment of our series profiling current Red Stars who were with club during its amateur days, we sat down with National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) assists leader and U-23 U.S. Women’s National Team ace Vanessa DiBernardo. Compared to the other three players on the list, Lori Chalupny, Alyssa Mautz and Michelle Lomnicki, DiBernardo’s story is unique in that the midfielder hails from Chicagoland and is the only 2015 squad member with firsthand memories from the 2011 Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) final.

When Chalupny, Mautz and Lomnicki joined the Red Stars in 2012, following the folding of Women’s Professional Soccer, DiBernardo had already been with the team for a year, as she started lacing up for Head Coach Rory Dames in her 2011 college off-season. However, the University of Illinois alum’s history with the man in charge of Chicago dates back far longer, as the two faced each other on numerous occasions during DiBernardo’s days with youth outfit America’s Soccer Club between 2000 and 2010, Dames coaching rival club Eclipse Select at the time.

“Being from the area, I feel very lucky I had the chance to grow with the Red Stars and to still be playing here,” said DiBernardo in reflecting on the past four years with her hometown NWSL side. “Back in my college days, it was great to have a place to train and compete during the summers, and I’m very grateful to (team owner) Arnim (Whisler) and Rory for providing me that opportunity. I have a feeling that time really helped my development and my transition to playing for the Red Stars today.”

The Naperville native, to whom Dames refers as “one of the best young players in the country,” has fond memories of the club’s amateur days in the 2011 WPSL and the 2012 Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL Elite). During the WPSL Elite campaign, the Chicago roster featured a number of established professionals who were plying their trade for free, as the WPS collapse had left them desperately looking for ways to continue their careers.

“It was basically a bunch of players getting together who enjoyed the game and wanted to play,” recalled DiBernardo. “It was a lot of fun and a very relaxing environment for us, which is exactly what it was supposed to be. That part is definitely very different today, given the pressures that come with playing in a professional league, but I would say that we still have players who are able to relax, have fun and enjoy the game.”

An aspect that is less enjoyable for DiBernardo to reflect on are her side’s dramatic defeats in the 2011 and 2012 championship games, as the Red Stars fell 2-1 to Orange County Waves and then 5-3 on penalty kicks to fellow ex-WPS side Western New York Flash after holding a lead until second-half stoppage time. Ever since those experiences, DiBernardo, who missed the 2012 final due to a call-up to U-21 U.S. Women’s National Team camp, has been playing with a chip on her shoulder.

“The first game was definitely heartbreaking, especially because we hosted it and lost in the last couple of minutes,” offered the talented attacker in concluding her remarks. “Then finding out we came so close and lost again the year after really stung. If we could finally win the championship this year, it would definitely be very special and a huge relief.”

Vanessa DiBernardo and her Chicago Red Stars can take a massive step toward bringing home the 2015 NWSL trophy this coming Sunday, September 13, as they host Lauren Holiday and defending champions FC Kansas City in their playoff semifinal. Tickets to all Red Stars matches may be purchased by calling 773-698-6001 or by clicking here.

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