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Orlando City is Reaping the Benefits of the Wilf Family’s Ownership

Life has been good under the Wilf family’s ownership so far. It’s time to see if it can get even better.

Sacramento Republic FC v Orlando City SC - 2022 U.S. Open Cup Final Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

With Thursday’s news that Ramiro Enrique has signed on the dotted line to become an Orlando City player, a transition of sorts was finalized. The acquisition of Enrique means that since the Wilf family took ownership of OCSC, the team has signed three new Designated Players, and three new MLS U22 Initiative players. When the sale became official back on July 21, 2021, Mauricio Pereyra and Nani were the team’s DPs, with the third slot empty, and had yet to make use of the U22 Initiative. Now, all three DPs are on the right side of 30, and the club has filled all of its U22 Initiative slots.

What’s most impressive is the way the club has gone about making the aforementioned changes without the overall product on the field really missing a beat. Losing Nani, Daryl Dike, and Chris Mueller in the same off-season was always going to hurt, but Orlando reloaded in emphatic fashion by signing Facundo Torres by way of a club-record fee, and also nabbing Ercan Kara as a DP striker and Cesar Araujo as the Lions’ first ever U22 Initiative signing. The Lions didn’t stop there, and added Gaston Gonzalez as another U22 Initiative signing, although he arrived injured and didn’t see the field during the 2022 season.

Last off-season’s statement of intent carried over to this year, and OCSC has put together one of the best off-seasons in the league — at least on paper. Pereyra and Pedro Gallese both returned, and the captain being bought down off the DP tag meant the Lions were able to add Martin Ojeda as the team’s third DP. Enrique following him through the door and the reported impending signing of Icelandic international midfielder Dagur Dan Thorhallsson round out the highlights of this off-season’s business, although that still doesn’t cover everything.

None of this has come cheap, and a FIFA report released earlier this week has Orlando as the third-highest spending club in the Concacaf region during the 2022 season. With Transfermarkt valuing Ojeda at around $8.7 million and Enrique around $3.2 million, the club has shown no signs of slowing down when it comes to throwing its weight around in the transfer market. Gone are the days of only relying on two DPs to get through a season. This club identifies the players it wants and is willing to dish out the necessary amount of cash to get them.

The best part of this new, freer-spending Orlando City? It’s working. The Lions won the U.S. Open Cup for the club’s first piece of silverware since joining MLS, and made the playoffs for a third straight year last year. Torres had 19 goal contributions in the league, Kara had 14 in about 800 fewer minutes, and both were crucial in the Lions’ run to the Open Cup. Fellow new signing Araujo was an absolute revelation and a nailed-on starter from day one, displacing Ecuadorian international Sebas Mendez in the process. Even with the offense hamstrung by Gonzalez’s season-ending ACL tear, the team was still good enough to nab a trophy and make another postseason appearance.

The club has also leaned into the philosophy of signing young, talented players who can help the team win, develop and grow in the process, and be sold on for profit. It’s a smart way of conducting business, and the Lions have honed in on the South American market to the point that I had to double check that I wasn’t hallucinating when the announcement of the Thorhallsson pursuit started to make its way around. Not that that’s a bad thing either — the club has built and continues to build a distinct culture and style, and you won’t hear me complain about OCSC becoming a destination where South American talent wants to come and play.

One of the most impressive things to me about how we arrived at this point is that there have been startlingly few missteps in the process, at least as far as the on-field product is concerned. When a new owner takes the reins it can be tempting to tear everything down as soon as possible and make the team your own (looking at you, Chelsea), but that hasn’t happened. There was no massive rebuilding year when the club’s form fell off a cliff under the new owner’s first full year in charge, and while the team had its share of struggles in 2022, last season was absolutely a success.

The Wilfs put their faith in Luiz Muzzi and Oscar Pareja, and the transition to where we are now has been steady and measured. Outgoing players have largely been replaced with ones of the same or higher caliber, and now that the club has identified areas it wants to change, it isn’t hesitating to use its newfound deep pockets to do so.

The question now is whether Orlando can take the next step. The Lions have been handed a brutal Concacaf Champions League draw in Tigres UANL, consistently one of the best teams in Mexico and winners of the 2020 edition of the tournament. While no one would fault OCSC if the team doesn’t advance, an improvement on the Lions’ seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference last year is a must, given the outlay in the transfer market. Not only that, but on paper, without having kicked a ball yet, another first-round playoff exit would be a bitter disappointment, given the offensive firepower and returning defense and goalkeeper that Orlando will have to call upon.

These are good problems to have, though, and talk about whether or not a talented roster can deliver on the field seemed impossible to fathom back in the mid-to-late 2010s.

So far, life under the new ownership has been pretty damn sweet. Not only has the team spent, it’s spent wisely, and that’s been borne out in the results on the field and the trophy that was hoisted in full view of the Exploria Stadium faithful last September. The club has gone through the transition process in the right way, and continued to forge an identity and culture that’s sustainable and can set the team up for future success. Given everything that’s taken place off the field and behind the scenes, it’s now time for the players to go out and see if life can get even sweeter.