Organizers of the 2026 men’s World Cup in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico on Tuesday took their first concrete progress in quite a while toward picking the cities that will host games in the tournament.
After months of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, representatives of the 17 U.S. markets in the race took part in an online workshop hosted by FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation. The virtual gathering replaced an in-person one that had been scheduled for mid-March in Dallas.
“It’s an opportunity to get to know the cities better, to get to know the stadiums, to enter into more details,” said Colin Smith, FIFA’s chief competitions and events officer. “Six years seems like a long time. It’s really not.”
FIFA and the domestic organizers still intend for the event to have 10 U.S. host cities. Organizers were to conduct a tour of the various markets in March and April, but the pandemic scuttled that. Concacaf president Victor Montagliani, who is on the bid committee board and is a FIFA vice president, said in April that visits were likely to take place in October and November.
But that plan is now on hold, too, understandably.
“It’s very difficult to give a final date, because we don’t know when the start date is,” Smith said. “So I would say we need a few more weeks yet to see how things develop.”
A statement from FIFA after Tuesday’s event said that “in the coming weeks FIFA will organize individual meetings with all candidate host cities,” and site visits will take place “whenever it is safe to do.” FIFA’s governing council will pick the winners some time next year.
Philadelphia is one of five markets in the Northeast corridor among the 17 total nationwide. The others are Washington, Baltimore, New York, and Boston. All are bidding with their local NFL stadiums.
It seems highly unlikely that all five will make the cut. Indeed, it’s possible that only three will, and New York is a lock. Boston has New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who chaired the bid to win hosting rights and is close with former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati — the U.S. representative on FIFA’s governing council. Washington, of course, is the nation’s capital, and Baltimore might be an alternative if FedEx Field is deemed unworthy.
U.S. Soccer’s planning operation is spearheaded by former U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, now “the senior adviser overseeing the U.S. city selection process,” as U.S. Soccer chief spokesperson Neil Buethe put it.
Flynn said “it’s a little early” to decide how many Northeast cities will make the cut, and Smith concurred.
“Nothing’s set in stone from our point of view,” he said.
Will the number of U.S. cities stay at 10? Smith said a lot of words that came close to a yes but weren’t quite — and as such, might not have been a hard no, either.
"We are conducting the process in line with the bid book and the bid process as it stood," he said. "That indicated 10, so that's certainly the premise on which we are embarking on the selection process."
And who makes the ultimate decision?
“I think U.S. Soccer will have significant influence,” Flynn said, but the final decision is “ultimately FIFA’s.”
Smith highlighted many aspects of a bid that could work in Philadelphia’s favor, from proximity to other cities — which FIFA values in order to reduce travel time — to transportation infrastructure, hotels, and past experience hosting big events.
David L. Cohen, the Comcast senior vice president and power broker who chairs Philadelphia’s local bid committee, is ready to make the city’s case.
“We strive to be a true international sports city, and you can’t be an international sports city without a passion for soccer,” he said. “In Philadelphia, there has been a huge increase in the level of interest around soccer. I think that’s due to the sport in general, I think it’s due to the Union, and I think we’ve got the seeds planted for a lot of excitement and energy around soccer — and I think it’s one of the strengths of our bid.”
It also might not hurt that Comcast has spent billions of dollars in recent years on broadcasting rights for the World Cup and the English Premier League.
Multiple sources said that when Fox and Telemundo bought the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups — just over $400 million by Fox and around $600 million by Telemundo — the U.S. shot to the top of the rankings of the world’s biggest spenders on World Cup rights fees. Telemundo’s deal alone is one of the biggest FIFA has. And even though Fox and Telemundo got the rights to 2026 at a discounted, no-bid rate, the U.S. is still at the top of the list.
Cohen has years of experience in city, state, and national politics. Now he is getting to know the world of soccer politics.
“I’m not uncomfortable in political situations,” he said. “I think I can help, in a significant way, Philadelphia navigate those politics to a successful conclusion of the bid process.”