MOSCOW — After a year of doomsday results, U.S. Soccer needed a positive jolt. On Wednesday, it got one.
The U.S.-led bid to host World Cup 2026 (along with Mexico and Canada) beat Morocco decisively here, a historic moment for North American soccer on the eve of a World Cup for which the U.S. failed to qualify. The U.S. will host 60 of the 80 games in World Cup ’26, including every one starting with the quarterfinals. Millions of new soccer fans will be created, potentially paving the way for fútbol to leap from its current growing state firmly into the realm of the U.S.’s most popular spectator sports.
The win also exorcised the demons of the U.S.’s upset loss to Qatar eight years ago in the bid to host World Cup 2022. Several of the figures who organized Wednesday’s triumph—including U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro, former president Sunil Gulati and MLS commissioner Don Garber—had been in Zürich on that fateful day in 2010. Their faces had looked stricken after Qatar was pulled out of the envelope; it felt like a wake.
Comebacks can take a long time in FIFA politics. Eight years in this case. But a lot has happened since 2010. FIFA’s dubious choices of Qatar (for 2022) and Russia (for 2018) became an inflection point for the organization, sparking global charges of corruption and a forensic investigation by the U.S. FBI, IRS and Department of Justice that turned FIFA upside down when the first wave of arrests was made in 2015.
Not coincidentally, over the past three years the American influence inside FIFA has grown dramatically. FIFA spent millions on hiring U.S. lawyers and public relations consultants in the wake of the FIFA scandal. Then-U.S. Soccer president Gulati played kingmaker in the 2016 election of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, whipping the votes that swung the decision to the Swiss-Italian in the second round (and perhaps extracting a future favor or two in the process). Did the bigger U.S. role in FIFA—especially the FIFA investigation—create resentment among other countries? Sure, to some extent, but not so much that it sunk the North American World Cup bid.
Meanwhile, the U.S. gained even more stature in FIFA through its economic might. No country on the planet pays more for World Cup television rights than the United States. Not for nothing did the U.S.-led bid promote an $11 billion profit for FIFA from World Cup ’26, which would shatter previous records. And the fact is that FIFA needs money. Infantino, who’s running for re-election next year, pushed through dramatic increases in FIFA development money for all 211 member nations, and profits need to rise to support that. Wednesday’s decision also makes it much more likely that FIFA will be able to add its first North American sponsors since before the FIFA scandal.
There are dangers, of course, in the U.S. being seen as little more than a giant soccer cash register. Part of the U.S. men’s failure to qualify for this World Cup can be tied to the lack of balance between the financial side and the sporting side in U.S. Soccer. The sport has become very good at making money but not nearly as accomplished at producing good men’s soccer players. That said, it would have been foolish for the United Bid not to use its powder. Cordeiro knew that the prospect of cold, hard cash would resonate in FIFA.
It’s fair to say now that Cordeiro knows how to conduct a winning campaign, having led two of them in the past eight months: His U.S. Soccer presidential victory in February and now the World Cup ’26 effort in June. Traveling the world in concert with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts over the past four months, Cordeiro helped win over voters with his humility and inclusiveness, just as he had done in the U.S. Soccer election. You never hear anyone say about Cordeiro that he “acts like he’s the smartest guy in the room.” That’s a good thing, and it has been a rarity in U.S. Soccer over the years.
In the end, inclusiveness helped seal Wednesday’s victory. Cordeiro’s predecessor, Gulati, was smart to include Mexico and Canada in the bid even though the U.S. could have hosted a 48-team tournament on its own. But having the two U.S. neighbors on board reduced the chances that other countries would vote against the U.S. at a time when it has retreated within itself politically and seen its reputation decline in countries around the world. Mexico and Canada won’t even host that many games—just 10 each—but their presence in the bid was essential.
For Gulati, too, Wednesday’s win allowed him to come full circle from the Qatar defeat—though not without its own tinges of bittersweet. The combined World Cup ’26 bid was Gulati’s baby, and he was the sole chief of the bid until he lost his hold on the U.S. Soccer presidency last December in the wake of the U.S.’s failure to qualify for Russia 2018. Gulati remains on the boards of FIFA, U.S. Soccer and Concacaf, though, and while it was sort of awkward to see him off to the side of the celebrants, he no doubt took great pride on Wednesday in bringing the men’s World Cup back to America.
Despite the misery of seeing no U.S. team at Russia 2018, it’s now possible to envision 27-year-old Christian Pulisic leading a U.S. team at World Cup 2026 that could potentially be a threat to go deep into the tournament. A lot needs to happen on the field over the next eight years, of course, but suddenly there is more optimism around U.S. Soccer, men’s division, than we have seen in a long time.