The structure of the joint bid by the United States, Canada and Mexico to secure the 2026 World Cupsends one clear message to everyone paying attention, including two of the three participants: The U.S. can do this without any help, really.
The three-nation bid itself, though, seems to be designed to send a more direct message to one observer in particular: Donald Trump.
Is it reading too much into Monday’s announcement from the top of the World Trade Center to infer that U.S. Soccer wanted to send a message of inclusion to the current government in Washington?
Consider that U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati was offered an ideal opportunity to counter that perception during Monday’s announcement, which was streamed live on the USSF Facebook page. A television reporter from the Al-Jazeera network mentioned that Trump had stated he planned to build a wall separating the U.S. and Mexico and had called “some undocumented immigrants from Mexico ‘rapists’” and asked how the bid could move forward “given the current political climate between the two countries?”
Gulati’s answer began: “We’re not going to get too much into politics today.” And he did not. He mentioned that Trump had been made aware of the plan, encouraged its pursuit and was “especially pleased” with Mexico’s involvement.
“Regarding anything else that may have been said during the campaign or after the fact, I’m not going to speak for the president on those,” Gulati said. “Mr. Spicer (press secretary Sean Spicer) gets to do that every day.”
Neither did he speak for himself, though.
In the past, Gulati has been critical of Trump policies and statements, including the travel ban the president attempted to install during the winter against a number of majority-Muslim countries.
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“I don’t think the executive order that has been issued is consistent with a lot of American values,” Gulati told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl in early February during a taping of the Planet Futbol Podcast. Gulati said he understood security concerns but later added, “It doesn’t represent what I think is the best of us.”
Gulati also said last summer a Trump victory would make it “a little trickier” to present a joint World Cup bid with Mexico.
In the end, though, the three nations agreed to move forward with the joint plan. With the World Cup set to expand to 48 teams and 80 matches for 2026, they agreed that 60 of the matches would be played in the U.S., with 10 each in Canada and Mexico.
The split was a surprise, but even more so was that the U.S. would be hosting all matches from the quarterfinals on, according to Gulati. Not even a single semifinal held out for Mexico’s famed Estadio Azteca.
This underscored the reality that this bid could easily have been composed by the U.S. alone. For decades, the United States has been the one nation on the planet that could stage a World Cup, and break records with itgiven only a few months’ notice. This is a product of America’s obsession with that other brand of football, but eight of the 10 world stadiums with capacities of greater than 100,000 are in the U.S., as are more than half of all those that can hold 65,000 or more.
Most or all of the largest sports venues in the U.S. are suitable for soccer, or could be easily converted. A great many of them already have been used for high-profile events in the sport, including Michigan Stadium, which drew nearly 110,000 for an exhibition between Manchester United and Real Madrid in 2014, and the Rose Bowl, which was the site of the final between Brazil and Italy in the World Cup staged in the U.S. in 1994.
Gulati proudly noted that unlike recent Olympics and World Cups, this multination bid would not require any budget-breaking venue construction. He also said he’d like to use “far more venues than has ever been the case.”
The growing interest in — and understanding of — soccer here would undoubtedly make the 2026 World Cup the most popular ever in terms of attendance. The U.S. 1994 event, which featured 24 teams playing 52 games, still holds the all-time attendance record even though the tournament subsequently expanded to 32 teams and 64 games.
The U.S. doesn’t need Canada and Mexico to pull off a World Cup. It probably doesn’t hurt to have them on board in terms of landing it, although FIFA is due to send the event to North America after rotating it since 1994 to Europe (1998, 2006, 2018), Africa (2010), South America (2014) and Asia (2022).
U.S. Soccer is choosing not to go it alone, however.
“We think it’s terrific for football in the region, for soccer in the region … given the close relationships we have already,” Gulati said. “We think in this interesting world in which we live, and the place we’re holding this particular press conference, and the Statue of Liberty outside and a whole bunch of things along those lines, from a social perspective it’s a positive.
“We don’t believe that sport can solve all the issues of the world, but especially what’s going on in the world today we think it’s a hugely positive signal and symbol of what we can do together in unifying people, especially in all three countries.”
Yeah, maybe it wasn’t so much an inference.
Maybe Gulati did kind of say it out loud.