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Vincenzo Bernardo and Morris Elite emerge as newest Tri State lower league side

Former pro forward and Red Bulls youth alum increases academy’s pedigree at management level with USL 2 side

Photo by Peter Bonilla

After a career spanning two continents, what’s a better way to start a new chapter than launching an amateur soccer team in the United States? Enter Morris Elite SC, one of the plethora of new teams to join USL League Two ahead of its 2021 season that started this past weekend. Following a cancelled 2021 campaign, the league’s 26th season includes seven new tri-state teams including MESC.

Based in Livingston and Morristown, New Jersey, Morris Elite was founded by former professional forward and New Jersey native Vincenzo Bernardo in 2016. The former US youth international has loudly built the program from an idea into one of few youth programs in the state to have been recognized by US Club Soccer as a “Player First Club.” Now with half a decade under their belts, the program of just over 500 youth players began its senior pro era this past weekend.

For Bernardo, the chance to start and build Morris Elite is just the next step in a whirlwind career. After training in the MetroStars Academy (which switched over to the New York Red Bulls branding towards the end of his time there), Bernardo went pro following his sophomore year in high school and made his way to Europe.

At 16 years old he had the opportunity to sign with Italian superclub SSC Napoli. While his two years there in the team’s academy never amounted to any starts with the first team, Bernardo credits his career longevity to what he learned in their academy and from the Italian system in general.

“Signing with Napoli was a dream come true. I was always thankful for that because having Napoli on my resume and having that experience on and off the field there gave me the opportunity to play around the world for as long as I did. Those experiences off and on the field molded me into the person I am today.”

Following this Vincenzo’s career jumped around from Austria, to the United Soccer League (even appearing in the 2011 final with the Harrisburg City Islanders), to Guatemala, and finally finishing up with two separate stints with Florida teams in the National Premier Soccer League.

While playing around the world he’s been able to make connections and come into contact with different styles of play and ways of training. That same Italian training that’s stuck with him is only one aspect that he wants to help pass down to the next generations. As Bernardo himself is going through coaching courses he’s hoping the program can bring a different blend of experiences to his players.

It’s a mix of philosophies, from the Central American attitudes and American styles. He’s gone on record saying that he wants to run Morris Elite like it’s Real Madrid. And while he might get a laugh out of people bringing that up he isn’t joking about it.

“When people ask me like, what’s the club philosophy or what’s the style of play? It’s world soccer,” he says.

Heading into its first season Morris’ roster is a who’s who of talent. Former Haitian national team striker Jean-Baptiste Fritzson and north jersey legend Sidney Rivera, who played for both the Puerto Rican National Team and across the lower leagues in the U.S., have both signed contracts.

Look further down the list though, there are plenty of names people won’t recognize and that’s the point. It’s a mix of players that will hopefully translate into a double positive; experienced players have a chance to continue playing while younger players, especially those from the program’s USL academy, have the chance to get competitive minutes.

Former US international and New York Cosmos captain Danny Szetela joined Elite back in March and is a prime example of this. After playing for the Cosmos for nearly a decade across three leagues, Bernardo says the Clifton, New Jersey native was a natural fit to sign on. Not only have the two known each other for a long time but at 33 years old Szetela is a dual threat on both and off the field.

“It just made sense for him to come play for Morris Elite now and be a mentor. Not only for our players off the field with the kids and stuff like that, but also on the field with the young players that we have in our USL Two team and the USL Academy team.

“He’s really excited, very eager to get started with us and hopefully the relationship and the experience blossoms and he can continue to be part of the club and as a coach for many years to come.”

Szetela is only the latest addition to an organization Bernardo hopes can create deep relationships with players. Throughout his career Bernardo has had the chance to learn from coaches around the world. Something he knows Morris Elite needs to have is people who want to go further in a player’s development.

In a previous interview recorded only a few years into the program’s existence he mentioned how much the relationships with his coaches mattered and he touched on it again while speaking with me.

“I’m still calling my coaches that coached me when I was a youth player until this day, I’m still friends with these coaches, you know, we hang out and talk often. So the goal is for (these players) to look up to us and take our experiences and kind of grow from them. It basically is a mentorship and it’s always teaching and educating the youth. I think that, overall, Morris Elite’s vision and philosophy is more than just on the field soccer. It’s a whole holistic approach to just the growth of a young human being.”

It’s a big step when working with so many players, both at the USL level and below, who may have the ability to go further in their careers. But developing those relationships allows the staff at Morris Elite a better chance to see where a player can go. Meeting a young player at the age of eight and seeing them advance for seven years would give any coach a decent idea on if they have the ability to take the next step.

“We are mentors, we are teachers, and it’s beyond development,” said Bernardo. “We have close relationships with all our families in the club. We have conversations with families all the time. We talk to the players, we see the players walking to school in the morning, we see them grow up and go through the stages of their life.”