The Wilf family has eyed Major League Soccer for quite some time.
The Wilfs, owners of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, were finalists in MLS’ expansion process in that state, where their plan for a team to share U.S. Bank Stadium was edged out by Minnesota United and the concept that would eventually become Allianz Field. Undeterred, the group led by brothers Mark and Zygi and their cousin Lenny acquired a minority stake in Nashville SC as that club made the leap from the USL Championship to the top flight.
Now, with their purchase of Orlando City SC and their NWSL sibling side Orlando Pride complete, the Wilfs finally have a soccer club of their own.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations over a couple of years and we've been around MLS a long time now, too. So it's been a long-standing dream we're aspiring to, and we're happy to see it realized,” chairman Mark Wilf told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday afternoon as he and the rest of the group were officially introduced at Exploria Stadium, a few hours before the Lions’ midweek cross-Florida showdown with Inter Miami CF.
“I also believe in Don Garber, the Commissioner, and his entire staff and all the ownership,” he said. “Being around them as a minority owner in Nashville and being around the league and watching it, I’ve been very impressed with the steps being made, and slowly but surely the game of soccer will grow dramatically in the United States. We're believers in it, and we’re backing it up with our resources.”
The Wilfs, who completed the purchase on July 21, arrive at an eventful moment around OCSC. Longtime CEO Alex Leitão stepped down last week. Pride head coach Mark Skinner just left his post to take over Manchester United’s women’s side. Both the MLS and NWSL teams are in hot pursuit of the playoffs, with the Lions currently running second in the MLS Eastern Conference standings. And the club is supporting its city’s bid to become a host venue for World Cup 2026 matches.
“Short term, we’re buying this club in the midst of the season. And we know our fans want, and we want, to win a championship. So we'll do whatever we can to provide for that,” said Wilf, noting that the search for Leitão’s successor is high on the to-do list.
“Beyond that, we have three great supporter groups, a great supporters section, great fans. We’ll make sure the fan experience is exciting so people can come out to games here,” he added. “We love the support. People that haven't been out here already should know that it's a party atmosphere, it's exciting, starting with tonight against Miami. So we're going to grow that as well.”
The Wilfs also want to build out their season-ticket base to push Exploria Stadium to full capacity on every matchday, and build on the club’s already strong connections to the community. Noting OCSC’s unifying role in the wake of the Pulse nightclub tragedy in 2016, Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer was among those on hand to welcome them – and with the Lions having finally achieved their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs qualification last season, there’s a rich sense of opportunity around town as the project of head coach Oscar Pareja and executive VP of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi takes flight.
For many fans, that begs the question: Will the new owners splash out on big-ticket signings to help speed that along?
“It's going to be multiple fronts, I believe,” said Mark Wilf. “I know academy and youth soccer investment, we're under-investing in that area, and that's something right away we’re going to significantly step up. That's going to be a long-term yield in terms of talent that helps our MLS club and grows the youth soccer part of our business, that's a part of it.
“Of course the transfer windows, drafts, those are things we're going to support Oscar and Luiz and our whole staff as we go forward. I know there’s a transfer window coming up here, deadline is tomorrow,” he added. “We're going to be smarter, we're not going to spend just for the sake of spending. But our soccer folks know that when it comes to investing to win, if it makes sense and it fits, we’re going to do it.”
Conversely, they may soon face a big decision on some outbound traffic. Lions striker Daryl Dike has been a prominent target of interest overseas in the wake of his breakout rookie season and a prolific, attention-grabbing loan spell at English Championship side Barnsley. But Wilf sounded more excited about Dike’s contributions on the pitch than the prospect of a lucrative transfer.
“We're going to evaluate it,” he said of the Oklahoman target forward. “He’s a star, he’s been a tremendous asset for our club this year. Like I said, we're in the midst of a championship run and that's where our focus is. We’ll obviously listen to the experts, Oscar, Luiz and the team, in terms of how they evaluate this.
“We're going to recognize Daryl tonight for his efforts in the Gold Cup, it's very exciting and we're happy about that. So yes, he's a great player, a great asset for the organization,” he continued. “We're looking at our roster, how we can maximize our current roster, how we can potentially work with resources to invest into the future rosters. So it's a combination. But every day, I know we're working towards championships and that's our goal. And that piece is part of it.”
Owner/investors arriving to soccer from other sports often face a steep learning curve with the game’s distinct culture and rhythms. But Wilf has priors, having grown up in New Jersey during the iconic heyday of the New York Cosmos at Giants Stadium, before raising all four of his own children as “soccer kids” themselves.
“We of course were Giants fans growing up, and that was a big part of our sports experience, but we also were able to get Cosmos tickets as part of our package and going to those games opened my eyes up to the incredible passion of the game, and the excitement of it,” he said. “We’ve come a long way in North America and MLS is a big part of that, and a great engine to drive it.”
Wilf made sure to emphasize that the family sees OCSC as more, much more, than just a savvy investment.
“I just want the fans to know that we know we're stewards of a franchise that belongs to this community,” he said, “and we want to make sure we have the kind of players and staff that this community can be proud of, both on and off the field, and that can provide wins and championships. So I give people that assurance that we will work every day towards that goal, both with City and the Pride. And I urge everybody to come out to the matches, it’s very exciting and we love your support in person.”