NEW YORK - Ever since CONCACAF first brought the Gold Cup to Lincoln Financial Field in 2009, the event has helped build Philadelphia's reputation as a hub for American soccer.
When the tournament returns in July for a quarterfinal doubleheader, it will mean even more.
This year's Gold Cup – the championship tournament for this continent's national teams – will be the last international tournament played on American soil before the United States, Mexico and Canada begin their joint bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The bid was announced in April, and the first round of filings is due to FIFA on Aug. 11. That's 16 days after the end of the Gold Cup, which runs from July 7 to 26.
The Gold Cup will thus be a final chance for the event's 13 host cities to prove that they should be part of the World Cup bid package. That message was reinforced by CONCACAF secretary general Philippe Moggio at a roundtable discussion with reporters Tuesday.
"When you start thinking about cities that are interested in potentially having a World Cup game, certainly this serves as a great opportunity to [be a] showcase," Moggio said. "That, in the end, will help the overall bid of this confederation to bring the World Cup back in 2026, no question."
Officially, the bid is coming from the three national federations, not the regional governing body. CONCACAF is lending behind-the-scenes support. And for an event of this scale, it's all hands on deck.
Fortunately, Philadelphia doesn't need to prove much. By the time the World Cup bid goes in, the Linc will have successfully hosted the 2003 Women's World Cup, last year's Copa América Centenario, three Gold Cups, and a solid serving of international friendlies. The stadium is easily accessible by road and public transit, and the city is right in the middle of the Northeast corridor's rail and air travel networks. The region also has ample potential practice facilities, from Talen Energy Stadium to college venues across the city and suburbs.
Nations that wish to bid against the North American giants must formally express their interest to FIFA, the global governing body, by Aug. 11. But the deck will be stacked against them.
For one thing, European and Asian countries are barred from the process because Russia will host in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. South American countries are likely to stay out, because Argentina and Uruguay want to co-host the 2030 World Cup to celebrate the event's centennial.
Just as important, and perhaps more, is the expansion of the World Cup field from 32 teams to 48 for 2026. Few nations in Africa or Oceania, the remaining continents, will be able to match the countless stadiums and transportation systems – not to mention the countless dollars from television networks – that North America's behemoths will bring to the table.
The expansion could prove especially beneficial to Philadelphia. Because the city is so well-situated amid other major markets, it will be easy to regionalize the group stage to reduce travel times. Imagine the U.S. playing at the Linc and MetLife Stadium in the group stage, then moving on to Chicago and points west as the tournament progresses.
Or imagine group games in Seattle, Santa Clara and Los Angeles, followed by a journey east that leads to a U.S.-England quarterfinal on July 4, 2026 – the 250th anniversary of an event both nations care about quite a bit.
"To the extent we can regionalize it, or create hubs … that's a very important component," Moggio said. "I think it's something that the [World Cup] organizing committee, when they look at how the matches are being distributed for a World Cup, will look into for sure."
It's a far cry from the last time the U.S. hosted a World Cup. Philadelphia was shut out of the party in 1994 because Veterans Stadium couldn't be made available for enough time.
Longtime local soccer administrator Richard Groff was front and center back then as the U.S. Soccer Federation's treasurer. He recalled that negotiations with the Phillies barely got off the ground, because the team would have had to leave for a month and a half. In addition to laying down a grass surface, construction crews would have needed to remove seats and recalibrate other areas of the stadium to create the VIP sections and media workspaces that a World Cup requires.
This time, Philadelphia has a venue with a pristine grass field and ample space for all the infrastructure FIFA needs. The 2026 bid's planners are well aware, as shown by Philadelphia's prominent place in the bid's promotional materials.
"It's great to go to battle with Lincoln Financial Field now, and Talen Energy Stadium as an ancillary site, and all that we can now offer as a city and an event host," said Philadelphia Sports Congress executive director Larry Needle, who was also part of local efforts in the '90s. "I think we're light-years beyond where we were."
But as with all things, nothing is official until it's official. Groff urged the current era of local organizers to not rest on their laurels.
"We have a great stadium, we have a great city, we have passionate fans, but you have to show up and compete," Groff said. "We have to treat this as it will not be awarded to us, and we're going to show why it should be awarded to Philadelphia. We can't ever believe it's an automatic. Everyone is going to have to do their part. That includes the mayor. It includes the Philadelphia Sports Congress. It includes the suburbs. It's a real regional effort."