It’s never too late to make a fresh impression.
Philadelphia landed a bid to be one of the 11 cities in the U.S. chosen by FIFA to host World Cup games when the tournament visits North America in 2026. So did Dallas and Boston, but hey, everyone makes mistakes.
None of the lucky 11 needs this sort of boost more than Philly. Plagued by problems — income disparity and poverty, political corruption, homelessness, gun violence — the town’s stature is receding faster than Mayor Kenney’s hairline.
But Big Jim, who will leave office in 2024, helped his city land the biggest tournament in the world. Not coincidentally, the next gubernatorial race comes in 2026. We’ll leave it to you to decide whether this feather in his cap might, um, kick off a run that lands him in Harrisburg.
There are plenty of other inarguable benefits to having the eyes of the world turn to the Delaware Valley.
1. Philly fans, rebranded
It would be ironic if the sport with the planet’s worst fans rebrands the city with America’s worst fans. Soccer hooligans make Eagles fans look like pussycats.
Still, from cheering Michael Irvin’s ambulance, to fighting outsiders, to eating horse poop after Super Bowl LII, football fans in this city have shown little brotherly love and less common sense. But if those football fans welcome fútbol fans with proper grace and decorum, that will go a long way toward changing the town’s image.
2. FDR Park, reimagined
Nothing the World Cup brings will deliver a more lasting and practical result than the $250 million makeover of FDR Park, adjacent to the sports complex. I see it every week — a vast, sad, unappealing waste of space. It has long been underdeveloped, undermanaged, and underused.
The World Cup will make sure that, in a city notorious for municipal delays and disappointments, the project gets done no matter who holds the power in City Hall.
The project was already approved before FIFA chose Philadelphia as one of the 16 sites on the continent -- there are two in Canada and three in Mexico -- and the original plan called for 12 multipurpose athletic fields, but those fields were all supposed to be made of artificial turf. However, part of Philadelphia’s bid promised that two of the fields would be natural grass, to accommodate FIFA requirements. That means those fields would have first-class restrooms, a press box, food stands, and storage areas.
Some people have complained about this. Some people will complain about anything.
In fact, some South Philly residents have resisted the project from the outset, and that resistance was redoubled when Philly landed the World Cup. FDR Park’s raggedy, swampy golf course closed in 2019 and quickly was reclaimed by nature, creating a spontaneous green space that residents rejoiced in having during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plans call for a managed green space in the heart of the park designed to modulate the frequent flooding surrounded by the athletic fields, with safer, smarter trails and more meadow space.
It has been 348 acres of potential. The World Cup will assure that, sooner than later, it will be 348 acres of urban oasis.
3. Jim Curtin and Union, celebrated
Named interim manager of a mediocre MLS club in 2014, Curtin was considered a local-boy place holder until the Union ponied up the dough for a big name. Except, Curtin excelled. Since 2018 he has been, by far, the best pro coach in Philadelphia. Since 2018 the Union has been, by far, the best pro team in Philadelphia.
Most mainstream fans didn’t know quite how good Curtin and the boys had gotten until December, and controversy, and disappointment. A COVID outbreak sidelined 11 players just before the Eastern Conference final — absences the team was unable to overcome in a 2-1 loss to the eventual MLS champion, New York City Football Club. Curtin, an Oreland native, was at once outraged, eloquent, and gracious. The team and the league could have asked for no better ambassador.
He won coach of the year last season, got a two-year contract extension, and was recognized as one of the game’s rising stars. The U.S. men’s national team might be in his future, as well as a job with a European club.
In the meantime, Curtin will be Mr. Soccer in Philadelphia. Every television and radio station will call upon him, every news outlet will use him as their resident expert. His players will become more recognizable celebrities, as they sit tied atop the Eastern Conference. Subaru Park, the best stadium in Philadelphia history, will become a destination.
The next four years will only enhance the team’s reputation and make the coach’s star rise higher.
4. Economy, boosted
The projected numbers of visitors, the cash influx, and the new-jobs numbers are absurd: 500,000 people won’t visit Philly for the World Cup, and they won’t spend $250 million, and there won’t be 3,500 new jobs created. Those numbers generally assume mostly visitors will come and that locals won’t participate; assume that all of those hoped-for visitors will spend retail for everything from hotels to T-shirts to cheesesteaks; and imply that those jobs will last more than the two weeks the Cup is in town.
That’s OK. Entities like Philadelphia Soccer 2026 exist to inflate both numbers and hopes. The bottom line is, Philly won’t have to build roads, stadiums, or hotels, so the World Cup will mean profit during late spring and early summer.
5. Soccer’s hot, getting hotter
“By 2026, soccer or football will be the number one sport in this part of the world.”
FIFA president Gianni Infantino dropped that dollop of hyperbole when he announced the host cities Thursday evening in New York, a melting-pot metropolis where there are more Jets and Giants fans than soccer fans and players combined.
But while he said this in the heat of a momentous occasion, it’s impossible to ignore the freight train of popularity that soccer is riding. It’s the second-fastest growing sport in America behind lacrosse, but with more than 7 million kids playing soccer every year, lax lags behind at a 7-to-1 clip. It’s already eclipsed hockey in popularity in America.
Will it be No. 1 by 2026? Of course not, and it never will be. There will always be another Tom Brady or LeBron James to anchor American sports fans, but with its endless shifts and endless games, baseball has become unwatchable.
As the population diversifies, could soccer become America’s game? No.
But Mike Trout better watch out.