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Chicago ace scored six goals in eight games for NWSL offseason loan club Perth Glory

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – When it comes to U-23 U.S. international Vanessa DiBernardo, fans of her National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team might be in for a treat during the upcoming season. Having led Chicago in assists last year, the attacking midfielder subsequently spent the American offseason raising many an eyebrow by banging in goals for her loan club Perth Glory Women of the Australian Westfield W-League. She recently took the time to discuss her success abroad, life down under and her expectations for the 2016 NWSL campaign.

DiBernardo debuted for struggling Perth in the side’s fifth regular season match on November 14, and she instantly took charge by bagging a brace and leading the Glory to a much needed 2-0 away win over Brisbane Roar. She explained her reasoning for making the 11,000 mile move in the first place.

“Wanting to challenge myself and getting out of my comfort zone definitely played a role,” said the Red Stars attacker. “I’ve been in the Chicagoland area for most of my career, so it was nice to experience something totally different while also being able to keep playing and get games during the offseason.  When I considered those two factors, it simply made sense.”

Despite joining her Australian side late and only playing in eight games, DiBernardo found the net a total of six times, good for fourth place in the W-League goal-scoring charts. Faced with unfamiliar surroundings, the midfielder, who hails from Naperville, Illinois, embraced the opportunity for personal progression and made the most of it.

“It wasn’t like anything I’ve ever experienced, which helped me grow a lot,” she remembered. “The fact I lived on the other side of the planet meant that communicating with anyone back in the States was a struggle. That added to the challenge of living in another country. Overall, the experience made me more of an independent person. As a player, I came into a new team, a new environment and a whole new soccer culture, and I think that really allowed me to improve my game.”

According to DiBernardo, part of what allowed her to find herself on the end of finishes while with Perth was a slightly less rigorous approach to tactics and the daily routine.

“Our training environment was probably a little more relaxed and a little more about enjoying ourselves and trying new things,” she offered. “That was definitely a good thing for me to have during the NWSL offseason and something that allowed me to expand on my skill set.”

The Glory coaching staff helped the former University of Illinois standout along by playing her in positions that she hasn’t traditionally occupied in NWSL competition.

“I did have a bit of a different role over there,” recalled DiBernardo. “Most of the time, I went back and forth between forward and attacking mid, which gave me more opportunities to get close to the goal. I do like trying to score and definitely wouldn’t mind some of that with the Red Stars this year, but I’ll be happy to do whatever it takes to help the team.”

While partly by design, the Chicagoland native’s frequent appearances up top also became a necessity when 22-year-old forward Samantha Kerr fell victim to a season-ending injury in DiBernardo’s Perth debut. Kerr is one of two attacking phenoms on the side’s roster who are fast approaching 50 caps with the Matildas despite only being in their early twenties, the other being 21-year-old winger Caitlin Foord.

Offered DiBernardo, “Although my time playing with both of them was short-lived, I enjoyed it tremendously because they impact the games and even the training sessions so much. There seemed to be quite a few players getting injured throughout the league, so I’m glad I at least got to play with Caitlin in several games.”

The Red Stars midfielder’s success on the pitch isn’t the only reason she enjoyed her two months on the Australian West Coast.

“I absolutely loved it off the field too,” she raved. “My teammates and the people in general were very open and welcoming, and it didn’t hurt that we were right by the beach. I really didn’t have anything to complain about while I was there.”

Now back in Chicagoland and preparing for the upcoming season in her native country, DiBernardo finds herself pondering a challenging situation following the retirement of long-time Red Stars midfield engine and club captain Lori Chalupny. With 2015 NWSL Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico likely to once again excel at holding midfielder, DiBernardo could well be looking at shared responsibilities with recently acquired Portugal international Amanda DaCosta.

“No one can really replace Lori, but doing our best to adjust and to integrate Amanda will be huge,” said the longest-tenured member of the Chicago roster. “Between Amanda, me, Danny, Alyssa Mautz and our other midfielders, we have several very versatile players, and I think there are many different things we can do as a group to fill the void. It will be fun to experiment and try to figure out what works.”

Having reached the playoffs for the first time as a professional franchise in 2015, the Red Stars will need to replicate their success in entirely different circumstances this time around. With the recent retirements of veterans Chalupny, Karina LeBlanc and Michelle Lomnicki, and the departures of Abby Erceg, Melissa Tancredi, Rachel Quon, Taryn Hemmings and Adriana Leon, several contracts are still up for grabs. Quality offseason acquisitions include DaCosta, Stars and Stripes goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and U-23 U.S. international Casey Short.

DiBernardo is optimistic her squad will be able to adapt and have a successful 2016.

Said the 23-year-old, “We’ve seen a lot of new faces in the group throughout preseason, which means that the veterans have to make sure we create the culture that we want and show the new players what it means to be a Red Star. It definitely feels different having so many young players after previously having a lot of experience. This year we’re probably a little more open to change and to finding new ways to win. I’m really looking forward to that.

I’d say our goal is to make it to the semifinals again and hopefully do a little better now that we’ve been in that situation before. I do think our experience last season could help us get to the final this time around.”

Vanessa DiBernardo and her Chicago Red Stars will be battling for domestic glory all throughout 2016. Individual and season tickets for the upcoming campaign at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by calling 773-697-8699 or by clicking here.

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