U.S. to open 2026 World Cup play at SoFi Stadium

Los Angeles, CA - January 30: A view of the empty SoFi Stadium before Rams play the 49ers.
SoFi Stadium, home to the Rams and Chargers and in 2026, World Cup games. The stadium is set to host eight World Cup games in 2026, including the U.S. group opener. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The only men’s World Cup ever played in the U.S. ended in Southern California in 1994. When the tournament returns to this country in 2026, it will start there, with Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium announced Sunday as the site of the U.S. team’s opening game.

The 2026 tournament, the largest in history with 48 teams, 104 games and 16 cities spread over three countries, will kick off June 11 in Mexico City. That will make Azteca Stadium the only venue to stage three World Cup openers. The U.S. and Canada, the third host country, will begin play a day later, with Canada’s opener scheduled for Toronto’s BMO Field.

“It’s exceptionally exciting to us,” said LAFC president Larry Freedman, co-chair of the Los Angeles host committee. “We've got eight matches. We've got the first and third matches for the U.S. national team. We're exceptionally happy with the way this is worked out.”

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After playing its second match in Seattle on June 19, the U.S. will conclude group play at SoFi on June 25. Included in the eight games to be played in Inglewood are two round-of-32 games and a quarterfinal. Only one venue — AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — was awarded more games with nine.

“We're happy with with how it turned out,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We look forward to being in L.A. [and] probably one of the best stadiums in the world and to get to play there twice in the group stage.”

The semifinals will be played in Arlington and Atlanta with the final scheduled for July 19 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. And while SoFi had long expressed interest in that game, Freedman said Sunday the first game was always seen as just as important as the last one.

“The original concept we put forward was to be what we called a 'Super Host City.' You start here and you end here,” he said. “So the opener was always really important to us because we knew it would involve the U.S.”

Who the U.S. will play in those games will be determined in a draw that will be held once regional qualifying for the tournament is completed. But Kathryn Schloessman, president and chief executive of the L.A. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said in many ways hosting the first game is preferable to staging the final.

An aerial view of MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The stadium will host the 2026 World Cup final.
An aerial view of MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The stadium will host the 2026 World Cup final. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

“The final is a big deal; obviously everybody loves to see who the winner is,” she said. But from a tourism and economic impact perspective, the opener is better because every team is still in the tournament.

“We kind of took that to heart,” she continued. “We wanted an opening [game] because we could attract a number of teams to base here. The final is great from an ego perspective. But this is not just about soccer. This is about what we can do for our city and the impact on our city economically.

“We can plan a whole opening week of events and really capitalize on that. This is a really great opportunity.“

Kevin Demoff, a host committee member and chief executive of the NFL’s Rams, who play at SoFi, said work will begin this week to bring the stadium up to FIFA standards. That will include covering the artificial turf with “a robust grass system” that will stand up to the strain of eight games in less than a month as well as expanding the playing surface in the corners, which are too narrow for a regulation-size soccer field. That will be accomplished, Demoff said, by placing some lower-bowl seats on risers rather than cement blocks. That work is expected to be completed in May, in time for his summer’s Copa América, which will stage two group-play games at SoFi.

SoFi Stadium, with its panoply of luxury boxes and tunnel entrances, is at the center of a palatial $5.5-billion complex built by Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke and is a venue long converted by FIFA, global soccer’s governing body that oversees the World Cup.

“That's why you invest that much in a state-of-the-art stadium like that,” Berhalter said of SoFi. “To get to host eight games, big games.”

Berhalter said minimizing travel in the group stage, which will be played across an entire continent, was important, as was keeping his team in the same time zone.

“It's just about being in an environment that's conducive to performance,” he said. “The idea is that you don't have teams jumping across the country. My guess is we'll probably make our way towards the East Coast as we continue to advance in the tournament. So I think it will be good, the time-zone adjustment, it could be gradual.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.