Will winning 2026 World Cup election unite fractured U.S. soccer community?
MOSCOW -- When the United States men's national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in October, the fissures that had been developing within the broader American soccer community cracked wide open.
There were disagreements on all manner of things, from the state of youth development, to the way the professional game should be administered, to Major League Soccer's relationship to the national team. That's a mere subset as well. The list goes on and on.
How, then, would the sport begin to move forward? On Wednesday, in Moscow's Expocentre, the answer to that question began to reveal itself when the "United Bid" of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. won the vote to secure the hosting rights for the 2026 World Cup. Sure, the tournament is eight years away and on the surface has little to do with some of the grassroots issues plaguing the game. There are also entrenched interests that show no sign of abandoning their positions.
But U.S. Soccer Federation president Carlos Cordeiro has long stated that he wants to grow the USSF from having an annual budget of $100 million to one of $500 million and beyond. As such, there needed to be a catalyst for that kind of revenue acceleration. Hosting the 2026 World Cup -- with 75 percent of the games (60 out of 80) to be held in the U.S. -- has the potential to do just that.
"It's something that we've been talking about for the last few months, if not longer, that bringing the World Cup back to North America would be transformational for the sport," Cordeiro said at a news conference following the vote. "This is something that we feel will more than reenergize the grassroots. We'd like to see young boys and girls, men and women -- we have almost 4 million registered players today. We'd like to see that number double or triple.
"So [it's] transformational in numbers; we want to bring more resources to the game at all levels."
The details -- some of which Cordeiro put forth in his campaign platform for the USSF presidency -- still need to be implemented, of course. But like it or not, reforms cost money, in some cases lots of it, though no doubt the execution of those changes will be critical.
Had the United Bid lost, well, that's a scenario that is almost too frightening to think about. Not only would the USSF and the sport itself have been plunged deeper into chaos, but Cordeiro's mandate would also have been seriously undermined.
As it stands now, and with the 2026 hosting rights secured, Cordeiro will need to put forward some tangible signs that he intends to be the reformer that he promised he would be. At least now, Cordeiro can start to move ahead with those reforms.
This much is certain, however: Cordeiro is one heck of a campaigner. He showed it earlier this year by running silent and running deep during the USSF presidential election campaign, and he -- along with his Canadian and Mexican cohorts, it must be said -- did the same this time around. Just about every pre-election forecast put forth by members of the United Bid team came to pass. There was talk of a "clean sweep of the Americas," and that pretty much ended up being the case. Only Brazil voted for Morocco, while Cuba abstained altogether. As for the Caribbean, it was thought to be the soft spot in the United Bid's CONCACAF base, but the region ended up staying local with the vote. This was true even for countries like Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda, whose governments had publicly expressed support for Morocco. It proved that while governments can apply pressure, it is still the football associations that cast the votes.
Asia was thought to be where the election would be determined, and the United Bid dominated there, winning 33 votes, with 12 against and a "none of the bids" vote from Iran. There was even stronger support in Europe, with the North American nations' bid prevailing 41-12. The United Bid made inroads in Africa as well, peeling away 11 votes.
The carrot of significant increases in the FIFA Forward program no doubt proved to be a powerful incentive. That program, which allocates development funds to cash-strapped football associations around the world, looks set to get a boost thanks to the $11 billion in profits projected by the United Bid. And even if those numbers have drawn some skepticism, the United Bid always had the makings of a bigger economic engine for FIFA than Morocco.
The extent to which geopolitics and the policies of the Trump administration entered into the equation is debatable, but at minimum it wasn't as much of a drag on the United Bid as was first feared. The United Bid stressed how well the three countries worked together and that the Trump administration had managed to assuage concerns about freedom of entry for fans during the World Cup.
"This was not a vote at the United Nations," Cordeiro said. "This was a vote of 210 footballing associations, and at the end of the day, we tried to make the case of 'What is best for the game? What's best for FIFA?' You talk a lot about the [FIFA] Forward program, where those monies go. How do you impact the grassroots? How do you impact the game? Ultimately, all of that needs resources. The men's World Cup, being what it is, is the signature tournament, and this is what drives the organization forward. I take gratitude that people listened and heard the message."
The victory was especially loaded for those who were part of the effort to secure the 2022 hosting rights, which were ultimately awarded to Qatar. Cordeiro and his predecessor, Sunil Gulati, were part of that effort, and now the pain of that defeat, regardless of the corruption that precipitated it, will be eased a bit.
Now, eight years of preparation lie ahead. That is time that can't be squandered, but thanks to Wednesday's vote, that is time the sport of soccer in the U.S, and all of North America, is happy to have more of.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.