Dawn of a New Era

by Gunnar Berndt

2023-24 could help shape Southern California pro soccer for years to come 

When asked to list professional soccer teams in their area, sports fans in greater Los Angeles will likely be quick to think of LAFC, the LA Galaxy, and NWSL outfit Angel City FC. For some, the Empire Strykers may not come to mind as easily, despite the club playing at the highest level of pro indoor soccer in North America. Those at the helm of the Strykers, and most of all owner Jeff Burum, are out to change that. Burum and company aim to not only return Empire to the playoffs in 2023-24 but to mold the MASL outfit into a household name in Southern California and beyond. 
    Recent offseason changes within the organization have bordered on the proverbial earthquake. While the Strykers made international headlines with the signing of Mexican superstar Marco Fabián in early December 2023, the club first raised eyebrows five months prior by hiring Paul Wright as its head coach. Wright enjoys legendary status as a former player with Empire’s arch-rival, the San Diego Sockers, but lacked any experience leading a professional team.
    Before taking charge of the Strykers, Wright was well-respected as the founder of a non-profit providing training opportunities to underprivileged youth, as well as the president of a company that helps serious athletes reach the next level. Over the years, the 54-year-old has also provided his expertise in fitness, speed, agility, and endurance to the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens as well as the Sockers and fellow indoor giants Baltimore Blast. 
    “I saw a proven winner,” said Empire’s former head coach and current executive vice president, Jimmy Nordberg, who was key in securing Wright’s services. “Paul was a phenomenal player and is intimately familiar with the championship culture in San Diego. He is vastly experienced, knows the game, and is very disciplined. In addition, he has run a successful business that works with young prospects, which is a testament to his skill and leadership. The fact Paul also has a non-profit makes him an excellent fit for our community-oriented philosophy. He simply seemed like the perfect candidate.” 
    In approaching Wright, Nordberg had the full approval of Jeff Burum. A part-owner of the Strykers for years, Burum had acquired sole ownership of the organization (then named Ontario Fury) in 2020, with its founder, Bernie Lilavois, and the family of Lilavois’ wife, Cynthia, transferring over their stakes at the height of the Covid-19 crisis. In the face of a global pandemic, and with Empire reaching the 2021 Ron Newman Cup final, Burum initially held off on wholesale adjustments. However, a lack of success over the following two years had the local developer and philanthropist feeling 2023 was the time to take a far more involved, proactive approach.
    “Jeff Burum is all about the community,” explained Jimmy Nordberg. “He wants the team to inspire and be inspired by the people of the Inland Empire. That’s why one of his main focal points in putting the roster together was bringing in class acts who want to give back and show young fans that they can aim high and reach their goals. That’s our mission and our vision as a club. To accomplish it, we need a championship-caliber team on and off the field.”
    With the hire of Paul Wright as head coach came a sharp change in direction for the Southern California-based outfit. Loyal supporters watched and wondered as the Strykers parted ways with seven of their top ten players in appearances during the previous season, as well as six of their top seven players in total attacking points. Gone from the squad are key contributors like Jesus Pacheco, Juan Topete, Mohamed Ndiaye, Gabriel Costa, and one of the best in the history of the sport, Franck Tayou. 
    While empathetic toward those lamenting the loss of some fan favorites, Empire’s general manager, Oliver King, made it clear the flurry of offseason departures was no accident, given the club has narrowly missed the playoffs in back-to-back campaigns. 
    “Winning with an attractive style goes a long way toward getting more attention and filling up Toyota Arena,” said King. “We’ve tried to make the product more appealing by getting younger and building more of a cohesive team instead of focusing mainly on big-name individuals. The rosters we’ve had in the past did well for us, but when you come up short twice in a row, it feels like the right time to try something new.” 
    The Strykers have added some genuine stars, including two-time FIFA World Cup veteran and Olympic gold medalist Marco Fabián, MLS and French Ligue 1 alum Claude Bilal Dielna, and ex-Baltimore Blast goal-scoring machine Lucas Roque. Empire also again boasts long-time captain and ex-LA Galaxy man Israel Sesay. All the while, the club has made a deliberate effort to replace well-known veterans over the age of 30 with highly talented twenty-somethings hungry to prove themselves.
    “The culture within the squad felt a bit skewed,” offered Empire’s executive vice president, Nordberg. “We hired Paul Wright to fix it and build a fast, athletic team that’s exciting to watch. Some of the guys we had didn’t quite fit the profile of what Paul needed, so we gave him full control and backed him in going young.”
    Nordberg continued, “Between our well-known stars and the up-and-comers, there’s plenty to be excited about. Now it’s up to Paul and his staff to get the team to buy into his way and win. We need a product our fans can be proud of.”
    While Jesus “Chuy” Molina is in his second season as an assistant and goalkeeper coach, Paul Wright has brought along fellow San Diego Sockers legend Paul Dougherty to complete his staff.
    “What sold me most on the Strykers is the passion,” recalled Wright. “When I first met everyone in the front office, they were very welcoming, and I could tell they all bleed purple. When you’re around people with that kind of energy, who are willing to help in whatever way necessary, that’s refreshing and infectious.”
    What Empire’s new head coach sensed is a dedication to the success of the organization that starts at the very top. Determined to build something that can be a source of pride for an entire region, owner Jeff Burum did not focus his attention during the offseason solely on the turf and in the locker room. Instead, the Strykers also made a number of strategic front office changes as well as hires in previously non-existent positions.
    Nordberg, last season’s head coach and general manager, took on a newly created role as executive vice president, and the former assistant general manager, Oliver King, was promoted to general manager. While doubling the size of its ticket sales force, Empire added two sponsorship specialists, two player liaisons, and a dedicated communications professional. Felipe Ruiz, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was put in charge of community outreach, and the club hired a new creative director in Mauricio Rodriguez whose approach to marketing is firmly rooted in the power of analytics.
    “One reason for bringing in new people was to expand our fan base beyond Ontario,” explained King. “There are also a lot of businesses across the Inland Empire that seem like natural partners, so we want to make inroads in terms of sponsorships. It’s important to keep evolving and find approaches that make us more effective in those areas. We’re optimistic some of our additions will give us those fresh ideas.”
    To Nordberg, the front office moves have already begun to bear fruit.
    “We’re all emotionally invested in the success of the club,” said the area native. “The recent hires and changes allow each person to focus specifically on what they’re good at, which makes us more efficient, effective, and professional. As a result, I believe we’re in a far better position to grow.”
    Anyone who is lucky enough to pick the brain of Jeff Burum quickly realizes that he thinks big. In a highly competitive sports and entertainment landscape, the owner of the Strykers intends to earn the respect and recognition he feels his club deserves. In all of it, Burum seems driven by a single goal — to foster a sense of identity and belonging within the local community.
    “The Inland Empire deserves to have a team that makes the people feel like winners and whose colors they can rally around,” he said. “I’m in this because I love this region. It has given me so much. Now it’s time to give back by putting it on the map of premier professional soccer.”