Most prodigies show talent at a young age, and Vincenzo Bernardo, a New Jersey native, was no different. From the ripe age of five, soccer was the lone sport he played.
"It was the only sport I focused on growing up," Bernardo told Goal.com via e-mail. "I just love to play soccer, even if it’s just passing or juggling with friends."
This passion led him to seek more playing opportunities with higher level competition. Bernardo’s coaches encouraged him to try out for the Olympic Development Program teams. He did, and performed so well that he was selected for a prestigious training camp in Carson, California. Things continued to progress from there.
"I found myself being called up for national team camps in Florida and being a regular on the ODP region 1 team," Bernardo reminisced. "At 14 I joined the NY/NJ MetroStars academy team. I was always playing two or three years up an age group.
"At the age of 15, I found myself being a regular on the youth national teams and ODP team. I won two national titles: one in high school, and one with my club team, both being the youngest starter on the field. That is when I started to consider a move to Europe."
Bernardo had numerous suitors, mostly from Italy since his family is Italian. He and his parents made the decision that Napoli, which was in Serie B at the time but has since made the jump to Serie A, was the right team for Bernardo. After an extended trial, he was placed with the Allievi Nazzionale, the top team of players born in 1990.
"I quickly took part with the team in official games. I scored many goals and fit well into the team," the United States U20 international said. "I developed a lot tactically as well as technically my first year."
The next season, Bernardo moved up to the Berretti Nazionale, one age level higher.
"I started to play in friendlies against the first team and experienced playing against older players. It was a very important year for me as a player," the 5'6 attacker said. "I gained confidence and mentally I became a smarter player."
At the beginning of the 2008 season, Bernardo was one of only eight in his age group to make the jump up to the primavera - the reserves. In a friendly against the full team, Vincenzo impressed and was asked to train with the full team for a week. After the week, he got a call that Napoli was interested in offering him a three year professional contract, which he signed shortly after.
Although the season started off promisingly for Bernardo, he didn’t get the kind of playing time with the reserves he had hoped for.
"I didn’t fit in well with coach [Ernesto] Apuzzo's system," said Bernardo. "I played seven games with the primavera team. I felt that I never got an opportunity to prove myself at that level."
However, he has taken some positives out of the year: "I did see myself becoming a better player by the end of the year. We had a friendly against the first team in which we lost 5-1, but I had the only goal for the primavera team and also got compliments from [Napoli head] coach [Roberto] Donadoni."
Bernardo thinks the first team training sessions have been particularly helpful in his development.
"[First team training sessions] were very important experiences for me, especially being an American-born player, getting to play against Serie A players," Bernardo said. "I learned a lot from being on the same field as them."
Despite difficulties at Napoli this past year, Bernardo had some U20 call-ups, which he describes as “honorable."
"Every trip with the U20s was an important experience for me and hopefully it can continue," he said.
This past year, some thought that Bernardo would consider playing for Italy, following in the footsteps of Giuseppe Rossi, but he quickly put that idea to rest.
"I've always said I want to represent the USA," the 19-year-old clarified. "I'm always honored to represent the country I was born in and grew up in. I'm determined to become an important player for [the U.S.] in the future."
As far as next year, Bernardo is looking to move out on loan from Napoli to gain some valuable first team experience. Some rumors linked him with a move to Major League Soccer, but Bernardo said he’s looking to stay in Europe, specifically in England, Italy, or Spain.
"[There is] no way I’ll be [moving to MLS] for the end of the season," Bernardo stated. "I want to play for a first team, start to gain game playing experience at a professional level consistently. At age 19, after three years of developing in Italy with Napoli, I feel I'm ready to prove myself."
Max Zeger is a Goal.com contributor. He can be reached by email at Max.firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on twitter @mcmz403.
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