The Long Read: Everybody needs good neighbours, even the US

Everybody needs good neighbours, so the soap opera theme tune goes. Thankfully for Sunil Gulati and US Soccer, the United States has two.

The Long Read: Everybody needs good neighbours, even the US

On Monday, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati and his opposite numbers from the national soccer associations of Canada and Mexico, Victor Montagliani and Decio de Maria, confirmed their intention to enter a three-way bid for the 2026 Fifa World Cup. The “historic announcement” was trumpeted as the start of a “unified bid”, one that would bring three ready, willing and able soccer-loving nations together for the greater good of the global game.

Declared at an event held, perhaps symbolically, on the top floor of the western world’s tallest building, the trio’s message was confident and unequivocal: this is our time. By 2026, after contentious World Cups in Russia and Qatar, the Concacaf region will have gone 32 years without soccer’s greatest showpiece, the only one of Fifa’s six confederations not to have hosted the tournament since the USA staged it back in 1994.

If successful, the Concacaf bid would mark the first time Fifa’s flagship tournament, which is set to swell from 32 to 48 teams, is staged across three separate countries. But whichever way you look at it, there can be no mistaking which country is calling the shots. Plans revealed on Monday call for the US to stage 60 of the tournament’s expanded slate of 80 matches. Canada and Mexico will only get a token gesture of ten fixtures each, while every match from the quarterfinals onwards will be played on American soil.

If that reality seems justifiable for Canada, a comparative minnow in world soccer whose only appearance at the World Cup was a winless, goalless showing in 1986, the same cannot be said for Mexico. A two-time World Cup host, Mexico is by some measure the most established soccer nation of the three bidders and would become the first country to stage the tournament three times if the 2026 bid proves successful. Yet that fact matters little to those Mexican fans who rightly feel aggrieved at the prospect of playing a supporting role, not least since they’re being forced to take a back seat to their noisy neighbours to the north.

In reality, however, Mexico’s federation had little choice but to fall into line. Had it opted to run alone, it would surely have lost out to a stronger US bid and thus ended up with no matches whatsoever. On Monday, Mexican Football Federation (FMF) president Decio de Maria acknowledged as much. Though he attempted to put a positive spin on the situation by saying major US hubs like Los Angeles and Houston would feel like home for Mexico anyway, such is the size of the Mexican expat population residing in those cities, he also conceded that “the United States does not need us to host a World Cup.”

But perhaps, in this instance, it does. Like the FMF, US Soccer had originally toyed with the idea of running for 2026 alone, having lost out controversially on 2022 to Qatar. It knew its solo proposal would have been a sound one - the US already boasts ample world class infrastructure, not to mention a media market that is a surefire commercial goldmine for event organisers, while there is also the fact that the 1994 edition remains the best-attended tournament in history despite only featuring 24 nations - but bringing its neighbours on board had clear upsides.

Under the three-way proposal, the US will enjoy the lion’s share of the benefits of staging the World Cup - 60 games is only four less than a full World Cup in its current format, of course - whilst farming out many of the least attractive fixtures in a tournament that is set to feature more unattractive fixtures than ever before. Politically, too, teaming up with two other Concacaf members makes perfect sense. Without its neighbours, US Soccer might have found it more difficult to curry international support. As some observers noted this week, there remains strong anti-American sentiment within Fifa circles after the US Department of Justice made an example of the global governing body in 2015. And that is to say nothing of the loathsome America-first protectionism of President Trump.

By teaming up with Canada and Mexico, the US positions itself as a far more compelling proposition for Fifa, whose internationalist new president Gianni Infantino has spoken out in support of joint bids having pushed through his 48-team expansion plan in January. For Concacaf, too, a three-way bid is an ideal opportunity to present itself as a cohesive unit. Not only does it eliminate the unwanted possibility of the confederation’s two largest and most powerful members going head-to-head in a bidding war, it also grants little old Canada perhaps its best chance to mix it with the big boys once again - provided, of course, the three would-be hosts get their wish of automatic qualification.

That decision, like other logistical details such as host city selection and match scheduling, will ultimately be down to Fifa, but the importance of Canada’s presence in the bid should not be overlooked. Many have suggested that the country’s soccer association is just happy to come along for the ride, but in retrospect its inclusion appears a strategically savvy move.

Montagliani, a Vancouver native, saw his political stock rise considerably when he was elected president of Concacaf last May, and he has since become an increasingly prominent figure in global soccer affairs as a vice president of Fifa and a voice of reform. On reflection, the decision to include Canada in the bid may have been a concession made by Gulati, himself a Fifa Council member and a close ally of Montagliani, to ensure the strongest possible support from within Fifa’s highest corridors of power.

But then that influence may not be needed in any case. If the overwhelming sense before Monday’s announcement was that a North American bid was a shoo-in, it now appears even more of a foregone conclusion. A viable challenger from another continent is unlikely to be forthcoming - countries in Europe and Asia are excluded from the running while those in Oceania and South America are unlikely to pose any real threat, leaving Africa as the only realistic contender. The Concacaf bid leaders know this, of course, and they are now seeking to press home their advantage.

Shortly after Monday’s event in Manhattan, ESPN’s Sam Borden broke the news that the co-bidders are hoping to fast-track their path to victory by making a proposal at next month’s Fifa Congress that would see them given ‘a unique, noncompetitive window’ to ‘prepare a report that showcases the technical specifications’ of their bid, ‘covering everything from stadium capacities and infrastructure to hotels and transportation.’ The idea is that if their specifications meet Fifa’s requirements, which one can only presume they will, the North American bid will simply be rubber-stamped. According to Borden, a decision could be made as early as the end of this year.

Such an arrangement would be unprecedented for Fifa, but it would not, by any stretch, be out of character. With questions swirling around how its first 48-team World Cup is going to work in practice, securing a host - or, in this case, a set of eager, capable, well-heeled hosts - ahead of schedule would eradicate a multitude of issues and help smooth the whole process.

Eyebrows will, of course, be raised over that kind of non-bid arrangement. But even if it may seem anti-competitive and reminiscent of the ways of the ‘old’ Fifa, it might actually turn out to be better for everyone involved given the alternative - a lengthy and costly bidding process with a heavy favourite and only one outcome - isn’t exactly a dream scenario.

Michael Long is SportsPro's Americas editor. Follow him on Twitter @_MichaelLong.