On July 24th, President of the Ontario Fury indoor soccer team, Bernie Lilavois, has announced via twitter that he has resigned from his position. “My time with the Ontario Fury has come to an end today as I have resigned as Team President. This was an extremely difficult and emotional decision to make but it’s time to explore new opportunities and continue to grow. The Fury has literally been my life for the past 7 years and I will miss it. I will definitely miss all of you Fury Fans and Sponsors! Thank you for all your support over the years! Special thank you to my family and friends for all the love and support to allow me to live my dreams on a daily basis. Thank you all!” Founded back in 2013, Bernie played a critical role in being the team’s first president during the team’s inception, including the announcement of the team name from a fan-voted naming contest.
“The team’s colors and logo were chosen to represent the team’s name, as well as representing the Inland Empire’s climate,” Bernie explained in an interview with oursportscentral. They play in the Toyota Center in Ontario, which was called the Citizens Business Bank Arena before the name change in 2019. In its first year as a new team in back in 2013-2014 season, its first year saw the team place second to the last place in the pacific division, only winning five games in a 16 game regular season. Since then, the Fury has gone to finish 4th place once, 3rd place three times consecutively from 2017-2018 to last season and placed 2nd place twice. In the 2014-2015 season, they clinched the playoffs but lost to the Las Vegas Legends 6-5 at home and got eliminated. In the 2016-2017 season, clinching playoffs for the second time in history, they again failed to pass the second stage of playoffs when they lost the Pacific Division Final series 2-1 to San Diego Sockers.
Outside of the first team, they formed a reserves team called the Ontario Fury II back in 2017 in the MASL 2, a developmental league for the MASL. In 2018, they announced that the reserves squad would compete in an outdoor amateur league called the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL). In their first UPSL season, they started in division 2 of the SoCal South Division. They ended up with eight wins, two draws, and only one lost in an 11 game season that saw them become 1st place of the division and became champions and earn automatic promotion to the 1st division.
As the oldest child from a Haitian family, Bernie fell in love with the beautiful game at the age of five. From being pressured by his mother to play, Bernie hated playing soccer initially, stating he was “crying like a little baby,” but once he got his first touch, he fell in love with it. Bernie played other sports as well, from baseball, basketball, cross country, and volleyball. Born in New York, he and his family settled in the San Gabriel valley when Bernie was one and lived there for most of his life. He played soccer as well as the other sports high school in Pasadena, where he played in CIF championships then got a scholarship to play at Cal State Northridge playing in NCAA championships as well. Afterward, at the age of 20, he played professionally, starting with the San Francisco Bay Black Hawks of the WSL after his trials in Scotland and England. At his time with the Blackhawks, he got to play with the likes of big-name American stars like Dominic Kinnear, Marcelo Balboa, and Eric Wynalda (both of which were his roommates). During that time in the early ’90s, a new indoor team started in San Jose with involvement from the San Jose Sharks hockey team called the San Jose Grizzlies, and Bernie got the opportunity to play with them. His professional 30-year career has kicked off till his retirement in the late 2000s.
I got the chance to speak Mr. Lilavois about his time with the Fury and, ultimately, his decision to move on from the organization he started.
What got you into indoor soccer ownership?
So I fell in love with it and then at the end of my career when it was, you know, dwindling and finishing up. After retirement in 2009, I went up the ranks. I was a player then was a player-coach and then just a head coach, and then I had the opportunity because of all the experience that the league was trying to put a team in Southern California. Again, we used to have a team way back when and I said, you know, let me do this. I’ll take a risk, and my family backed me up, and we just put a team in Anaheim called the Anaheim Bolts in about 2010/11. We play two years in Anaheim, and then I moved the side here to Ontario because they had finish building the arena, and it was a couple of years old. It was ready for indoor soccer at that time, and then, we just became full-on owners of the team and that little risk and dream turned into what the Fury is now, ten years later.
How did you get involved with the Fury and MASL?
The Fury, I found it myself with my wife and our family, we legitimately just started it from scratch and built it up, and since then obviously, we brought other investors onboard and a lot more other people that are involved and doing stuff but it was a small little family business when we arrived here in 2013. It’s turned into a staple in the community, it has done so many great things with a youth soccer club named Fury FC now out here in the Inland Empire. I think they’ve got nine or ten youth teams to wear the same uniforms in the Fury. They’re based out here in Rancho Cucamonga. There’s also a Fury FC in the high desert with 10 to 12 youth soccer teams. We’ve run camps all summer for 12 weeks over the last six/seven years. We’ve done so many school appearances and the proudest moment is seeing the idea (come to life). Like, people know the hockey team The Reign, you see the baseball team The Quakes. Now, there’s a soccer team here called The Fury, that’s kind of cool to have our stamp on that. I’ve been involved with the MASL as a pro for 20 plus years and all the different leagues that existed. It’s a natural transition, I helped kind of form the league and being an owner of a team you’re sitting on the governing board of the league and have a lot of input in that so, it’s a relationship there. We’re proud of this team, and I hope it sticks around for the next 20 or 30 years.
Why did you leave the Fury now? Was stepping down to a lesser role an option?
I think it was just time. After a while, my wife and I brought other investors to keep the team going and help us out. It takes a lot financially; we started as a small mom and pa venture, so I’m glad the new investors kept buying more and more shares of the team, taking more of that ownership role or else the team would have gone away. After seven years, 4 of them coaching while still being the owner, as well as playing a game or two when I was younger, and after that 4th year, it was evident that the team needed new people to take over and put their stamp on it. In the last three years, I have taken more of a back seat and got a coach who is taking charge of the roster now. The ownership group is making all the decisions; it was just time. I’ve been doing this for 30+ years (involvement with soccer), and its just time for me to move on to the next project. It was just time for me to do it. The timing seems right with this weird thing with the pandemic. It was time to hit reset and let the new ownership group do it their way, not the Bernie way. The short answer is, it was time for me to move on and let the new people take over.
If the pandemic didn’t happen, would you leave the team this year?
We had three games left in the season, the team was in a playoff position, but the league was in limbo on whether to continue. Regardless, I had that sense it was brewing, so I think it would have happened naturally anyway since, like I said I was taking a backseat role, I believe the pandemic sped up the process for me. But regardless, I wouldn’t blame it on COVID.
Tell us, how did you get Jermaine Jones Jr? Was Landon Donovan hard to get?
It was crazy because San Diego signed Landon Donovan, which was a big deal, and ironically, he’s from here in the IE. Before that happened, we knew about it behind the scenes that he was going to sign with San Diego. We didn’t go after Jermaine or thought to ourselves like; we need a big name to match what San Diego is doing. It just happened. We had a player here, Jeff, that knew another guy that knew Jermaine well and was telling me that he would like to play, he just finished coming out of MLS and he mentioned to me like you should reach out to him. It was going on for a while beforehand. People were dropping hints to me that he would be interested. Then one day, we got the contact information for him, and they drove out here, and we met up with them, talking about the team, etc. The more I spoke about the training facility and the arena, the more he got interested. It was like all the stars aligned; the timing was just perfect.
Two weeks earlier, San Diego signed LD while I was talking to Jermaine, and once it happened, he said well if he’s playing, I’m playing. He was a beast when he got here, he scored ten goals and got five assists. We resigned him this year, but the coaching staff and new owners went a different direction, and he was having scheduling problems, it just didn’t work out for this season, but it was awesome, it was one of the highlights of my career. To get a world-known player to sign with an indoor soccer team. It was cool to see a big-time player here in the inland empire, and the fans reacted! We sold a lot of his jerseys, the attendance climbed, and he put us on the map. We had Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Fox Soccer covering us, so it was intense.
Besides JJJ, what were some goals you and the organization achieved in your 7 years with the Fury?
For me, the first words I said at the press conference back in 2013 when we moved the team here, we have indoor soccer here in the IE with the Ontario Fury, the first professional indoor soccer team here, we are the top dog here in the Inland Empire. That is something I’m very proud of. I also said at the press conference that we will be the most active team in the community. I said that not to other sports teams weren’t doing a good job in the community, I was just saying that soccer is very popular here in the Inland Empire and you’re going to really see us out there. Build community through soccer, just like everywhere else in the world. Honestly, we hit all the schools and districts, soccer camps were big. We truly lived up to being a community team, and those are the things I’m genuinely proud of. We put the first-ever professional team in the area, and hopefully, it sticks for 20-30 years. We really engraved ourselves in the community and giving back to the kids and different organizations with fundraising, those are the things I’m most proud of. I never really talked about “hey we need to win a championship”, because a championship will come eventually. Still, the community will always be here, and that’s what I really wanted to stress.
What are some other ventures you like to seek?
There’s a lot I’ve always wanted to do, and you’re going to laugh at this, but speaking Spanish is one of them. My wife and her family are from Michoacan, Mexico. We go down there a lot, and I was the GM for the US National Indoor soccer team for the last 10 years. That got us to travel all over the world, to Guatemala, Mexico, Argentina, and all these places, and I could never speak Spanish. It’s crazy that now with the pandemic, I’m not on the hamster wheel of the Fury 24/7, I sat back and thought I will check off a few things from my bucket list, I will learn how to speak Spanish. I’ve been trying to learn it with my son since we are here at home and its fun. Now I can say I speak English, Spanish, and French. I also got my real estate license from the last 2-3 months during the pandemic. My focus and message here is that I’ve been so focused on the Fury and so zoomed in that I haven’t had time to go back to my bucket list of things I really wanted to do. Now that the Fury has some time here and is a staple in the community, I have to move on and do other stuff like the Indoor Soccer Alumni, which I just started. It’s my new project, kicked it off this past weekend, only to honor the past indoor soccer players. Indoor soccer has been a pro sport since 1978, there’s still no real history behind it and the project is meant to honor the past and promote the future. So things are not bad since I resigned from the Fury a month ago.
Last question, how do you want fans, staff, and players to remember you as president of Fury?
At the end of the day, as long as they continue to be out there in the community, doing those school appearances and keep doing the soccer camps, community programs and stay being a community partner, I’d be happy, that’s how I want them to remember my legacy. What my wife and family believe is helping each other out, being true community partners, and really helping these kids dream that they can do whatever they want. The best way they can honor us and our legacy is hopefully they keep that passion and flame for the community alive, and I think they will, they’re in good hands. There are some good people and players at the Fury, I think they are ready for a championship. It’s not about me, it’s about them making a stamp on the Fury, and I look forward to seeing that.
During the interview, Bernie is not aware of his predecessor, and the club has yet to make an announcement or respond with a statement about the next president.
You can see Bernie’s new project, Indoor Soccer Alumni on these social media platforms: