With focus sharpening on next year’s tournament in Qatar now that qualifying for that event is finally underway in earnest, the 2026 FIFA World Cup is still just a gleam in many soccer fans’ eyes.

In logistical terms, however, the clock is ticking loudly for FIFA, the 2026 bid committee and the many stakeholders who will work together to stage the largest World Cup in history across North America in under five years’ time.

The final list of host cities is probably the biggest question yet to be answered. Expanded to 48 teams for ‘26, this edition of the world’s favorite party is expected to take place across 16 venues, including three in Mexico, two in Canada and 11 in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed FIFA’s original timeline for selection, and the governing body now says it expects to complete “this highly competitive selection process” in the first or second quarter of 2022.

Official site visits kicked off this week, as FIFA chief tournaments and events officer Colin Smith and Concacaf president and FIFA VP Victor Montagliani lead a delegation of some two dozen officials on a tour of nine locations across the eastern US.

They’ve started in Boston – specifically Foxborough, Massachusetts’ Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Revolution – with subsequent stops in Nashville, Atlanta, Orlando, Washington DC, Baltimore, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia and Miami. Points further west will be visited later this fall, including Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

Here’s a rundown of where things stand at the moment – but first, for a bit of historical context, here’s the list of locales for the 1994 World Cup and the failed US bid for 2022.

  • 1994 World Cup cities (9): Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, New York/New Jersey (Meadowlands), Orlando, LA (Pasadena), Bay Area (Stanford), Washington, D.C.
  • Proposed 2022 World Cup cities (18): Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, LA, Miami, Nashville, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, Tampa, Washington, D.C.

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The math: 11 from 17… probably

The original plan for this co-hosted event was 10 US sites and three apiece in Canada and Mexico, with the States hosting 60 of the tourney’s 80 matches, including all knockout rounds from the quarterfinals on.

But Montréal dropped out of the race (citing cost concerns) in July, leaving only two official Canadian host candidates, Edmonton and Toronto. Vancouver didn't even get this far into the process, thanks to the then-British Columbia government harboring similar worries to Montreal/Quebec’s back in 2018. (Chicago, somewhat surprisingly, also dropped out at the same time and for comparable reasons.)

Current BC officials have recently expressed interest in getting back into the mix, which would instantly make for a strong Cascadia contender that could also benefit the prospects of nearby Seattle. But for now we have to leave Vancouver out of the reckoning. All this poses knock-on effects that are difficult to pin down.

Will Canada stick with just two host cities? Is Mexico assured of all three of its candidates – Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey – being rubber-stamped? Assuming “yes” to both of those questions, that leaves 17 US cities vying for 11 host slots. Now let’s get into that arithmetic…

The frontrunners: World cities

Certain markets are seen as World Cup no-brainers in light of their size, reputation, location and history, starting with New York, Los Angeles and Miami. The early conventional wisdom is that at least one of the two Texas metropolises will fall under this category as well, with Dallas a nose ahead of the larger Houston thanks to the size, modernity and cachet of AT&T Stadium, the hulking home of the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas.

NFL venues MetLife Stadium and Hard Rock Stadium are the spots for New York and Miami, respectively. LA has submitted two facilities for consideration: the huge, historic Rose Bowl, site of the ‘94 final, and SoFi Stadium, the stunning new home of the NFL’s Rams and Chargers in Inglewood.

So let’s say that’s four slots off the board. One small rung below them are a few other highly appealing locales: Boston, Washington, D.C. the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, all rich soccer hotbeds with global recognition and pedigree. And all would fall safely into the can’t-miss category above except for some specific concerns.

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Gillette sits outside Boston’s urban core and presently sports an artificial turf surface. But Revs and Patriots owner Bob Kraft, honorary chair of the board for the 2026 bid committee, is a longtime soccer backer who during Wednesday’s site visit pledged to swap out the turf for natural grass – among other refurbishments – ahead of the big event. In Seattle, the Sounders’ Lumen Field is an atmospheric downtown ground in a soccer-mad region that would also have to replace its synthetic surface, or cover it with a high-quality temporary grass pitch.

The Washington Football Team’s FedEx Field is an unloved NFL bowl on the city’s eastern outskirts in Landover, Maryland, which is now nearly a quarter-century old and has seen its capacity reduced repeatedly over the years amid the home team’s sustained struggles. Out in NorCal, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara is much newer, but also removed from the San Fran and San Jose downtown areas and aspects of its design, traffic planning and playing surface have been criticized.

Venue quibbles aside (and it’s important to note that those exist for every candidate) those four metro areas probably have pole position on the rest. If they get the nod, that leaves just three of 11 spots open.

The contenders: Whose pitch will catch on?

So that leaves Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Nashville, Orlando and Philadelphia. As you probably noticed, coastal locations feature heavily in the “locks” category, and FIFA likely prefers some semblance of even geographical distribution. Climate, tourism infrastructure and venue characteristics will all factor in, too – and the local bid committees will be making their pitches for what they have to offer, from culture to corporate support and beyond.

Nashville bid chair Butch Spyridon gave a glimpse into that process when he spoke with reporters at the US-Canada World Cup qualifier at Nissan Stadium earlier this month.

“You have to assume, LA, New York, Miami, Dallas or Houston, one of those. The major cities are going to get their games,” he said. “But if FIFA truly wants to showcase this part of the world and U.S. soccer, we’re as an American a city as it gets, and I think we offer something a little bit different. And then we can put the sizzle, entertainment-wise, as good as anybody, if not better. I would stake our reputation on that.

“It's probably no secret that Nashville’s had a nice run here in the US, growth-wise, development-wise. So we have 16 million visitors a year, one of the top-performing hotel markets, and our international presence is growing daily. So if we can convey that, we think we have a chance.”

Here’s where things start to get quite subjective.

Nashville, Cincy, Denver and KC look to be in similar positions with their local MLS clubs, medium-sized populations and solid, if unspectacular, NFL facilities. Many in ATL and Philly would argue in favor of being on the same tier as Seattle, Boston et al. But Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s turf complicates that outlook a bit, and Philadelphia could suffer for its proximity to NY/NJ and D.C.

Then again, that proximity angle could cut in multiple directions, considering that the I-95 corridor’s dense population levels and strong transit links may prove appealing as FIFA considers the levels of travel it will require of teams and fans. Which brings us to the bidders who are eclipsed by bigger contenders in their vicinity, but offer synergies in that sense. Might there be value in pairing cities like Houston and Dallas, Baltimore and D.C., Orlando and Miami?

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The details: Dimensions, capacities, training facilities

FIFA requires far more from bidding cities than just an appropriate stadium, a big population and a good airport. Modern training facilities must be made available to participating national teams, as well as transportation capacity, tax abatements, security and policing resources, substantial hotel volumes, sites for FIFA’s “Fan Fest” events and more.

There are layers upon layers of planning and redundancy built into all this. Philadelphia’s bid, as one example, lays out six potential training sites, including the Union’s home base in Chester and several area universities, out of which four would ultimately be selected.

“We look at the full picture… It really is an integration of many, many different factors,” FIFA’s Smith told USSoccer.com last year. “The location of the venues, the time zones. We also look at the climate conditions, in terms of the timing of matches, the heat in certain matches at certain times of the day … We look at the roads, we look at the airports, we look at the hotel, transport concepts, mobility concepts.

“Part of that is looking at what does the whole city want to achieve from hosting this World Cup? What can this World Cup bring to them? As much as obviously what a city can bring to us, what are they looking to get out of it?”

Even some of the best-suited stadiums will have to undergo overhauls of varying degrees ahead of ‘26. There’s the aforementioned natural-grass requirement; 10 of the venues in contention currently have synthetic turf. And most NFL venues are narrower at field level than FIFA’s optimal dimensions, which not only concerns the width of the pitch itself (70 yards is the World Cup minimum, while 74 or wider is preferred) but space for warm-ups, security, advertising, broadcasters and the like.

Organizers in Washington and Cincinnati have already stated that they expect to remove seating to enlarge and reconfigure their field areas to FIFA’s desired specifications, and the fields in Baltimore, the Bay Area and NY/NJ are narrower than those two. Nashville sports one of the NFL’s wider grass surfaces, but still projects significant spending to gussy up their house for ‘26. Conversely, Toronto FC’s BMO Field will expand its capacity to upwards of 45,000 spectators for the World Cup.

“What's interesting is that every single stadium is going to have to make improvements to accommodate FIFA’s requirements,” Greg O’Dell, president and CEO of Washington bid outfit Events DC, told MLSsoccer.com.

There is some wiggle room in all this; FIFA is generally willing to work out compromises and readily recognizes that North America’s advanced sporting infrastructure requires much less buildout than other host nations, with Qatar’s vast billions in ‘22 spending the most extreme example.

The intrigue: Where, why and what flavors

This month marks the start of the recruiting phase, if you will. Candidate cities are making their pitches to impress FIFA officials, checking the logistical boxes while also making personal and memorable connections. Some of that process will unfold in the public eye. But FIFA’s evaluation criteria are more opaque.

Beyond their baseline requirements, will the governing body value the biggest possible stadiums for maximum crowds and income? Do they emphasize more cosmopolitan, quirky or entertainment-rich locales? Will they shy away from the prospect of summer heat in certain open-air venues for an event that will surely have plenty of day games to align with primetime television viewing in Europe and the Middle East? Could Canada and Mexico’s portions evolve further in the coming months?

For the most part, we’ll just have to wait and see. And that might turn out to be nearly as interesting as the games themselves.

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