Vincenzo Bernardo: that’s what it’s all about. It’s just bringing soccer into the local community where people can just make a 10-minute drive to the local field and they’re watching.” (Photo courtesy of Morris Elite FC)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

At an age when many professional soccer players are in the prime of their careers, Vincenzo Bernardo finds himself in the unusual role of owning and running a team in a national league.

His Morris Elite Soccer Club will make its USL League Two debut when it visits nearby Motown FC at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Sunday at 7 p.m.

Bernardo, 30, will be on the sidelines at Drew University in Madison, N.J., watching his Morris Elite SC team kick off its inaugural USL League Two match against FC Motown at 7 p.m. Sunday.

The present

Nothing like a derby match to kick things off and that is fine with Bernardo, who experienced that when he played in Italy.

“Well, that’s what it’s all about,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s just bringing soccer into the local community where people can just make a 10-minute drive to the local field and they’re watching. They’re watching local clubs competing against each other. That’s what it is in Europe. You didn’t have to go see the big clubs in the top divisions. You can go down the street or in your local town. There’s a competitive game.

“That’s just the growth of the of soccer in our country, and I am a believer in that USL League Two will bring that in all the communities in our country. This is going to be an exciting season; I think we have one of the most competitive divisions in the Metropolitan division. We are a new franchise, but we want to be here for a reason and we want to be successful this season. So, it should be a very exciting season for all of us.”

The Metropolitan Division has some heavy competition, which also includes Cedar Stars Rush, FA Euro New York, New Jersey Copa FC, Long Island Rough Riders and Westchester Flames. After visiting the Cedar Stars Rush May 23, Morris Elite will host FA Euro New York in its home opener at Union High School Tuesday, May 25 at 7:30 p.m.

Having someone that young owning and operating a team in the fourth division of the U.S. Soccer pecking order is rare, but then again, Bernardo took a rare path in his journey to that role.

He has played in four countries before hanging up his competitive cleats at the age of 25 in 2016. Moreover, he learned about the beautiful game on and off the pitch. He was a sponge, soaking in knowledge from various clubs and culture.

Bernardo felt it was the right time to start a youth club.

“It’s never easy starting from zero, and especially in New Jersey and Madison, New Jersey, Morris County, New Jersey where there’s a club everywhere you look,” he said. “You go down the street, there’s another club. There are so many competitors. I never really looked at the competition. I just knew that I’m a soccer guy. I kept it simple. I want to give back to the kids in my community and give them all the experience that I learned as a player.”

“I feel like these clubs that are here, I’m sure they’re all great in their own ways, but Morris Elite is special because you have that personal touch,” he said. “You have that the ownership of Morris Elite, and the experience that I’ve had, playing professionally playing around the world and being from Madison.

“Everything just happened to fall in its place. Year one was very difficult, but you do a good job, you put your passion and your effort into it and things can happen. That’s exactly what happened with Morris Elite.”

The club expects to have 500 children and 30 teams in September, including its USL Academy team.

“It kind of took off,” Bernardo said. “It’s been fantastic because with this USL league two team that we added. It kind of brings back the pro air and the pro-environment I’ve always been part of. Kids love it. They want to be part of it. So, why, why not give them an opportunity to, to dream big and have a platform to look forward to.

His goals for the USL League Two team’s debut season are simple and direct.

“At the end of day, we’re here to win,” he said. “I didn’t do this just to, just to be part of it, I did it to compete and to win. We brought players like Danny Szetela, Brian Martinez, … These are the more experienced players in our team to be successful from the start. The lower levels of professional or semi-pro or amateur soccer. They get frowned upon because of the style of play. So. our goal this season is to play an attractive style a beautiful style of soccer. We want to compete.  Hopefully everything works out for us where we get to showcase our style of play and our philosophy as a club. We can also get results with that.”

The past

Bernardo started playing organized soccer as a five-year-old with the Madison Arena YMCA. He eventually moved to Morris United and then the Red Bulls as a 14-year-old in 2004.

Two years later, a trip to Italy with the New Jersey Olympic Development Program team changed his life. Bernardo played with the New Jersey ODP team in a tournament in Italy. He impressed local clubs and since he had dual citizenship with the USA and Italy, Bernardo was asked to stay a few weeks to trial with teams.

One month he was watched Italy’s Serie A teams on RAI, which televised league games back then. The next month he was getting an opportunity to play with one of the squads. Vincenzo’s family emigrated from Napoli, with which he signed.

“It really went full circle,” he said.

It also was “a surprise move,” Bernardo said. “It was the unknown. Not that many players have done it when I was there so it kind of came to a shock not only my, my friends, my close friends, family, but also my high school.”

Bernardo was a member of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., which was the top-ranked high school in the nation after winning a pair of national titles. He was ready to be a starter, but Napoli was a more inviting carrot.

He played two seasons with the Napoli youth team before joining the first team for the 2008-09 season. His playing time was slim, but his entire experience was invaluable.

Bernardo spent a season with FC Hochst in Austria, scoring eight goals in 15 matches before returning home to join the Harrisburg city Islanders in the USL in 2011. A unique opportunity to perform for Guatemalan club Deportivo Guastatoya popped up in 2012-13 and Bernardo took advantage of it while taking advantage of opposing goalkeepers to score a dozen times in 35 appearance. He transferred to Antigua GFC for the 2013-14 campaign, striking for five goals in 14 matches.

Former Cosmos midfielder Ferdinando De Matthaeis told Bernardo that Miami United (National Premier Soccer League) could use a player and he returned to the states for the 2015 season, scoring seven goals in 12 games. He completed his pro career with United, which morphed into Miami Fusion FC for the 2016 season.

“It was a very unique opportunity,” Bernardo said. “It was the NPSL but the ownership group was very excited and enthusiastic group of individuals who own a team. We had players from all over the world. There was players from Italy, Jamaica, Haiti, South America. We ended up winning every single game and going all the way to the finals of the NPSL. It was cool.”

Every step of the way gave Bernardo another chance to look at the business of soccer on both sides of the line. While he did not earn millions of dollars, his experience was invaluable. In fact, he said he was grateful for every club for which he competed.

* Napoli – “When you get offered to play for Napoli and your dream is to play soccer professionally, it’s just a no brainer. Having Napoli, on my resume, and having that experience, my first three years there as a pro, really helped me with my career as a whole. I’ll always remember those memories, and I’m always thankful to Napoli for giving me the opportunity.

“It was a professional environment. So it kind of led me to, you know, everywhere I went, having Napoli in my resume and having that experience on and off the field. I think it really helped me on and off the field. It’s just a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of a club like that. I’m forever grateful.”

* Guatemala – “It worked out. It was two fantastic years my life. I’ll never forget Guatemala. I ended up learning Spanish on the fly and got to experience a new culture and a new, a new country. It was just a tremendous experience for me on and off the field. My whole career was just gaining experience on the field and off the field, and all these countries that I played in, Guatemala. Until this day I still have friends from there and I keep in touch with all of them.”

Though he was only 25, Bernardo felt it was time to call it a career after the 2016 season.

“It came to a point where I had to realize what was my next chapter in life and what’s my purpose here,” he said. “I ended up always doing soccer camps when I was when I was home during my all seasons when I was a player. It came to a point where people were coming up to me saying ‘Hey, you know you should really start something here.’ So, it just made sense everything just all the stars aligned, and the timing was right. The ownership group [with the] Miami Fusion was on the same page and I’m always grateful for them, because they, they were the ones that listened to me, gave me the opportunity to start the next chapter of my life. It was just organic.”

The future

Given what he has accomplished in a short period of time with Morris Elite, it wouldn’t be surprising if the club spread its wings in the not-too-distant future.

As for now, Bernardo wants to enjoy and live the moment.

“If we don’t have dreams in life, there’s really nothing worth living for,” he said. “You have to have dreams. And obviously, being a League Two team already I’ve accomplished, I’ve accomplished a dream of mine.

“So, now it’s just I want to enjoy this moment with having a premier youth club, and having a USL team and a the USL Academy team,” he said. “Down the road, who knows? You never know what can happen. If someone told me four years ago that I would have a USL League Two team and have all our youth teams here, It would be hard to believe. So, let’s see what happens.”

But …

“But I’m a very ambitious person,” he added. “I know the game very well and I know what it takes to bring a club to the next level. I think down the road in the future, there’s a lot of potential with Morris Elite. It all just has to come organically. I don’t like to force things so if it makes sense then we’re we’re all on board, for sure.”

So far so good for Bernardo and Morris Elite.