The most important parts of Philadelphia’s bid to host games in the 2026 men’s World Cup will be handled away from public view, among expensively attired power brokers in suites at Lincoln Financial Field and five-star hotels.
But the public relations side of the effort matters a lot, too, because FIFA likes it when there’s real grassroots interest in bringing the world’s most popular sports event to town.
Philadelphia’s bid committee laid down a few markers in that regard during an event Tuesday at the Independence Visitor Center.
First, bid committee chair David L. Cohen welcomed three-time women’s soccer Olympic gold medalist Heather Mitts to the group’s ranks of honorary co-chairs. Mitts joins a group of local soccer stars that includes Carli Lloyd, Julie Ertz, Zack Steffen, and Alejandro Bedoya as well as NFL star Zach Ertz, Mayor Jim Kenney and Gov. Tom Wolf.
Mitts still makes her home in the Philadelphia area, 11 years since she last played for the Independence, the last pro women’s team here – and since she married former Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley.
The bigger marker is one that will be easily seen by the crowds that pass through the Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Market Streets while visiting the nearby historic attractions.
Look up as you walk up the entrance ramp and head for the café in the back, and you’ll see some giant soccer balls hanging from the ceiling. Beneath them is an exhibit promoting the city’s World Cup bid, including a set of foosball tables and a wall on which visitors can leave notes and memorabilia. Attendees at Tuesday’s event, including many local youth soccer players, left the first notes, scarves, and jerseys.
“Soccer is woven into the fabric of our city,” Kenney said. “From the Lighthouse Boys Club to Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer to the Philadelphia Union, Philadelphia is essential to telling the story of soccer in the United States.”
Though the sport’s popularity here has risen fast, especially since the Linc opened in 2003, Kenney noted that soccer’s roots in some of the city’s most famous neighborhoods go back nearly 150 years.
“Perhaps surprisingly to many, Philadelphia has a wonderful history and tradition in the sport of soccer,” he said. “Immigrants brought the game here, and many played at fields across Kensington, Frankford and Tacony after the factory shifts in the late 19th century. … In the 1890s, Philadelphia sides were traveling to Trenton, New York, and Pittsburgh for matches, and high-profile, inner-city games drew thousands of fans.”
Soccer’s history in Philadelphia schools is long, too: public schools started offering it in 1908, and Catholic League schools started offering it in 1922.
“We can’t wait to welcome FIFA and U.S. Soccer to Philadelphia for their site visit so that we can showcase all our great city has to offer,” Kenney said. The site visit is expected to happen in early autumn.
“It’s no secret that Philadelphia loves soccer,” Cohen said. “We need to demonstrate that.”