It’s the 36th minute of the NWSL semifinal between the Chicago Red Stars and the Portland Thorns. Vanessa DiBernardo settles the ball just outside the Portland’s 18-yard box — a spot on the field where she’s done her best work over nearly a decade as the #10 for her hometown Red Stars — and slots a pass out wide to Katie Johnson, who makes a turn around her defender and scores the game-winning goal
The Red Stars are back in the NWSL final, after falling 4-0 to North Carolina in 2019. For DiBernardo, it’s the latest chapter in a long soccer career that’s rarely asked her to journey more than a 100 or so miles away from her Chicagoland upbringing. After starring as a youth player growing up in Naperville north of Chicago and earning All-American honors at the University of Illinois down the road, DiBernardo was drafted #4 overall in the 2014 NWSL Draft by the Chicago Red Stars and has starred for the club ever since.
“I think I’m really lucky being a hometown girl,” said DiBernardo. “Playing high school, club, college all in the same area. It definitely means a lot to me. I think this team and this club has always had the city behind them. And it does feel extra special being able to have friends and family out there supporting me and the team and the club.”
DiBernardo’s storied career — she’s the only Red Star to play every playoff minute in club history — also carries a unique family element: she and father Angeloo DiBernardo, who represented the USA at the 1984 Olympic Games, are the only father/daughter duo to represent the United States in soccer.
“He’s impacted my whole career,” says DiBernardo. “He was my club coach growing up. He’s been very consistently involved with coaching me and supporting me throughout my entire career. I mean even before playoff games this year he sends me a text and gives me his two cents before and after games.”
And sure, maybe the dynamic has shifted a bit over the years. As Vanessa cements her own bonafides as an outright ironwoman there might be a little more push back on the advice Dad offers.
“Yea, that probably happens a little more often now,” Vanessa laughs. “We obviously butt heads. But I think that’s good because he’s consistently there for me and keeps pushing me to be better. So he’s still very much involved and it’s definitely something I don’t take for granted. I know it’s something that not every player has.”
But for as long a legacy DiBernardo has built in Chicago, she’s not the only one. The Red Stars are packed with players who have spent their entire NWSL careers with the club — Julie Ertz, Sarah Gorden, Danielle Colaprico, Arin Wright, just to name a few. In the NWSL, to say nothing of professional sports overall, keeping such a large core together for the entirety of their careers is almost unheard of.
“It’s pretty crazy,” DiBernardo concedes. “I don’t think you see that very often in professional sports. So it’s a testament to this club and I think it’s a testament to the group of players who have been able to play together and show we have good chemistry. That we can get this club to the playoffs consistently year after year.”
For this year’s squad in particular, those roots go back to even before their professional playing days. A handful of the Red Stars went through the gauntlet of winning a World Cup as U-20 national team players back in 2012, an experience DiBernardo credits with laying the groundwork for the kind of bond they can share this year on the run to the championship game.
“It is wild. And it’s something we’ve brought up multiple times this year. We’re back together. And it feels just like old times. With that U-20 team, we created such a bond through that experience. When Kealia [Watt] got traded here, and [Sarah] Woldmoe, and Morgan [Gautrat], it was just exciting. And slowly one by one, as we kind of came back together we were like ‘this is pretty sweet.’ Especially at the age we are, nearing probably the end of our careers.”
On top of all that history, this moment carries special meaning in and of itself. As NWSL players fight for their first Collective Bargaining Agreement, work to expose and address mistreatment of players by current and past coaches and executives, and simply battle to return to play in the midst of a global pandemic, a little taste of success might just be a little sweeter.
“This year, across the whole league, it’s been a tough year,” said DiBernardo. “I think getting to where we are, we’re super proud of what we’ve done. Just trying to push for our first championship is now our goal and we’re going to do everything we can to bring it home.”
And in Chicago, in particular, bringing home an NWSL championship right on the tails of the Sky’s WNBA title run would be even more delicious.
“It was really cool for us to be able to experience the Chicago Sky making their playoff run,” DiBernardo explains. “When they won, we were watching on TV and I was watching it with a couple teammates actually, and I turned to them and I go ‘I want one of those.’ So it’s definitely something we all kind of watched and thought ‘ok, we can do this too.’”