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How Vanessa DiBernardo quietly became Chicago Red Stars’ most important player

A look at Chicago’s midfield connector ahead of their rescheduled NWSL playoff match against North Carolina Courage.

Chicago Red Stars handout

When looking at the Chicago Red Stars, who are scheduled to play the North Carolina Courage on Sunday in the National Women’s Soccer League’s second semifinal, it is easy to focus on Sam Kerr.

Kerr, who scored 16 goals and had four assists this season, has rightfully gotten a lot of attention in the Red Stars’ run back to postseason. But if they are going to shake off a run of semifinal defeats, it may well be another player who leads them there: Vanessa DiBernardo.

Before we get to DiBernardo, we should discuss the strange circumstances surrounding the match. It was originally intended to be played in North Carolina this weekend, but has now been rescheduled for Tuesday evening in Portland. With Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolina coast, and both the Courage and the league dragging their feet, a Tuesday match played in the same city as the NWSL championship — where the winner of this semifinal will take on the Portland Thorns at Providence Park on Sept. 22 — was the best compromise.

In a call with media this week, Red Stars head coach Rory Dames alluded to the importance of Chicago’s underlying playmakers, remarking that “the narrative is Sam Kerr ... but we have a lot of players on our team that can do a lot of things to hurt opposing teams.” And while Kerr did have another solid outing in the NWSL this year, Chicago wouldn’t even have the opportunity to play a soccer game in the middle of a hurricane without the resurgence of DiBernardo.

Picked up in the first round of the 2014 NWSL college draft, DiBernardo comes from a Chicagoland talent pool that is “a bit underrated nationally,” as Dames has put it. And in a locker room where chemistry reigns supreme, DiBernardo is the player who helps tie different experiences together. She won the U-20 Women’s World Cup with Julie Ertz and Morgan Brian in 2012, and she played two seasons in the Australian W-League for the Perth Glory along with hometown hero Kerr. She also serves as captain for the squad in games that Ertz is unavailable.

Working within a midfield stacked with the high soccer IQs of Morgan Brian and Danielle Colaprico, DiBernardo acts as a calming and connecting presence. While Brian and Colaprico are frequently asked to hold up play in the midfield, alternating between no. 6 and 8 roles respectively, DiBernardo is the final piece that connects that work to Yuki Nagasato, and then through Nagasato to Kerr. When DiBernardo is on the field, she prefers to float near the left flank, but she can also shift more centrally to function as a no. 10 when needed, effectively filling the gap between Chicago’s pass-heavy possession style and actually turning that into goals. But she’s not much of a shooter herself, which has left her under the radar.

To understand DiBernardo’s importance to this team, it might help to look at how they fared without her. DiBernardo’s sidelining due to a stress reaction in her pelvis left the team disjointed, and unable to execute effectively. Chicago was missing quite a few pieces to the roster early on, slowly integrating Kerr into the fold, and struggled to give her the midfield support she needed. Colaprico described DiBernardo as the player who was charged with “connecting the pieces with us in the midfield,” and her absence in the first half of the season made meshing new parts of the squad that much harder.

And if her eventual contributions in turning Chicago’s fortunes didn’t always show up in the box score, a quick look at her stats in the 11 games she played show the numbers are outstanding. DiBernardo has 22 key passes in 679 minutes played, a rate per 90 minutes that rivals that of U.S. Women’s National Team standout Megan Rapinoe. Her larger impact also shows up in the team’s trajectory: Chicago’s record this year without Dibernardo? 2-4-6. With her available? 7-1-4.

To show DiBernardo’s impact, the best example would have to be the goal she scored against the Utah Royals on June 23. That match would stand as a crucial point in Chicago’s season, immediately following the massive mid-season trade that sent Sofia Huerta, amongst others, out of Chicago in an emotional week.

Still working her way back into fitness, DiBernardo didn’t sub into the match until the 66th minute. Just four minutes after coming into the game, she collected the ball in her own defensive half, beat the Royals’ midfield press, and slid the ball right in front of a streaking Kerr. She then sprinted to the top of Utah’s box to re-collect the ball from Kerr and place a shot to solidify a much-needed win. Two months later, she and Kerr would recreate that moment almost exactly against the Orlando Pride, in the match that ultimately sent the Red Stars on their path to the playoffs.

As Dames asserted, the Chicago Red Stars are significantly more flexible than in the past. They can play out of different shapes, they can do different things, and they can attack in different areas. Kerr is one of the best strikers in the world, but those things don’t happen without players like DiBernardo stepping up. And that might just be enough to get Chicago a spot in the final.