Philadelphia’s 2026 World Cup hosting bid delegation passed a milestone on Tuesday with the first of a series of online meetings with bid evaluators from FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The meeting focused on Lincoln Financial Field and its related infrastructure, local bid chief David L. Cohen told The Inquirer. Future meetings will focus on the rest of the bid package, such as practice venues, hotels and transportation, and other aspects of the fan experience. There are likely to be two more rounds of online meetings, with the hope of in-person site visits in the third quarter and a final decision by the end of the year.

“It’s really hard to run this process in the best of circumstances, and running it in the middle of the pandemic is even more difficult,” said Cohen, the former longtime Comcast executive and chair of Penn’s board of trustees. “But [the evaluators] have been terrific, they’ve been communicative, they’ve tried to figure out a way to do their work virtually, and this is a perfect example.”

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Cohen described the call as “an interesting, constructive and gracious dialog between and among experts.” He said “FIFA was very much in the lead” in the conversation, with further input from U.S.-based advisor Dan Flynn. He’s a former U.S. Soccer Federation CEO, and shares the top of the 2026 planning hierarchy with FIFA chief tournaments and events officer Colin Smith.

“This was really a technical meeting,” Cohen said, the kind where officials wanted to know about lots of behind-the-scenes things that most of the public wouldn’t see. But there’s one that the public will definitely see: a commitment to a natural grass playing surface at the Linc.

Cohen didn’t want to go into much detail about that, but he’s well aware that some NFL stadiums have moved away from grass as the technology behind artificial surfaces improves. Asked if the Linc would stay with grass through 2026, Cohen gave a one-word answer: “Yes.”

He also said at another point in the interview that “for every expert that FIFA had on the phone, we had an Eagles expert to match and to be able to have a dialog with them on a highly technical level.”

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The Eagles were represented on the call by chief financial officer Frank Gumienny; senior vice president of operations Jason Miller; controller Andrea Sorli; director of event operation Chris Sharkoski; and director of grounds Tony Leonard. Philadelphia’s bid committee representatives ere led by Cohen; Meg Kane; and Convention and Visitors Bureau chief administrative officer Angela Val.

Mayor Kenney was not on the call, but he issued a statement afterward.

“We know that Philadelphia is a great city, and we thank FIFA and U.S. Soccer for the ongoing opportunity to showcase how we can provide an unforgettable experience to teams, athletes, sponsors, and fans from around the world,” he said. “I believe we have all the key pieces of infrastructure to host the World Cup successfully, especially given our stadium and the quick access to it from Center City, whether by car or public transit. We look forward to our ongoing conversations with FIFA and U.S. Soccer and look forward to welcoming them here in person when it is safe to do so.”

The hope is that in-person visits can take place in the third quarter of this year, with a final decision set for December.

All parties involved, including FIFA, were amply aware of the Linc having hosted many big-time soccer games since it opened: the 2003 women’s World Cup, the 2016 men’s Copa América Centenario, multiple Concacaf men’s Gold Cups (including a sold-out 2015 final), and plenty of big U.S. national team friendlies. The last of those, a visit by the U.S. women soon after their 2019 World Cup triumph, drew 49,504 fans — the largest ever crowd for a U.S. women’s team standalone friendly.

Of course, Cohen didn’t pass up the opportunity to sell the rest of the city’s bid, especially its desire to welcome the world’s soccer fans to America’s birthplace.

“We are a very diverse city and region,” he said, “and I don’t care what country you’re from, if you come here, you’re going to see people who look like you, speak your language, who are going to be welcoming. … That’s one of our big pitches.”

And what about the ultimate card to play — the fact that the president and first lady of the United States are rabid Philadelphia sports fans? Cohen knows that better than anyone, having been a close friend of the Bidens for many years.

Cohen hasn’t brought it up yet, “but it’s a nice ace in the hole, there’s no doubt about it.”

It will surprise no one if it eventually lands on the table.

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