The 2026 World Cup will look a whole lot different from previous iterations of the tournament, thanks to the fact that it will be hosted by three countries – the United States, Mexico and Canada – and expanded to 48 teams for the first time. There are still a bunch of questions that have yet to be answered, and perhaps won’t be answered for a number of years, but here’s what we know so far:
How will the games be split up?As it stands now, 60 games will be played in the United States, with Mexico and Canada hosting 10 each. That isn’t set in stone, however.
“They have made a decision among themselves but ultimately it will be up to FIFA to decide,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino told reporters Wednesday.
To cut down on travel, the U.S.-led bid proposed having teams play all their games in the same regional areas. The United States will host every match from the quarterfinals forward, with the proposed final to be held at MetLife Stadium outside New York City.
The U.S. metro areas in the running are Atlanta (Mercedes-Benz Stadium), Baltimore (M&T Bank Stadium), Boston (Gillette Stadium), Cincinnati (Paul Brown Stadium), Dallas (AT&T Stadium), Denver (Sports Authority Field), Houston (NRG Stadium), Kansas City (Arrowhead Stadium), Los Angeles (Rose Bowl and the new NFL stadium), Miami (Hard Rock Stadium), Nashville (Nissan Stadium), New York (MetLife Stadium), Orlando (Camping World Stadium), Philadelphia (Lincoln Financial Field), San Jose (Levi’s Stadium), Seattle (Century Link Field) and Washington (FedEx Field). Eleven of those locations likely will be chosen, with a decision likely two years away.
Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City are up for consideration in Mexico, while Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton are the Canadian cities that have been proposed.
How many teams will participate?For the first time, the World Cup will feature 48 teams after FIFA voted to expand the tournament in January 2017. Here’s how the bids will be parceled out:
UEFA (Europe): 16
CAF (Africa): 9
AFC (Asia/Middle East): 8
CONCACAF (North and Central America/Caribbean): 6
CONMEBOL (South America): 6
OFC (Oceania): 1
Five teams from every confederation except for UEFA, plus one additional team from CONCACAF, will take part in an intercontinental playoff tournament to determine the final two slots. The two highest-ranked teams according to FIFA’s rankings will receive byes, while the other four will play knockout games. Then the remaining four teams will play, with the winners securing the final two spots in the tournament. The intercontinental playoff will be held somewhere in the United States, Canada or Mexico, perhaps in November 2025.
Will the United States, Mexico and Canada all get automatic bids?The World Cup host usually receives automatic entry into the tournament, but FIFA has yet to announce whether it will extend this pass to all three host nations in 2026. FIFA said in May 2017 that the question will be answered by the FIFA Council at a later date, and no decision was made on Wednesday. Infantino said Wednesday that discussions about the issue will be held in the weeks to come but added that CONCACAF, and not the FIFA Council, will make the decision.
Further clouding the issue, former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati – who’s still a member of the FIFA Council – told ESPN’s Sam Borden on Wednesday that the council will have the final call on automatic bids. He did say, however, that he would “fully expect” all three co-hosts to receive them.
If we’re spitballing, it’s hard to imagine the United States being forced to qualify for a World Cup in which it is the predominant host. Whether FIFA also extends this courtesy to Mexico and Canada – the latter a relative nonentity in international soccer that has qualified for just one World Cup in 1986 – remains to be seen.
One has to think all three will receive an automatic pass into the tournament. In 2002, Japan and South Korea both were granted automatic bids when they co-hosted the World Cup. Like Canada, Japan had previously qualified for only one World Cup.
So what about the tournament setup?With 48 teams, there will be 16 groups of three teams. Each team will play just two group-stage matches instead of the customary three. The top two teams from each group will advance to a 32-team, tournament style knockout round.
With only three teams in each group and each team guaranteed only two games, there is a greater opportunity for teams to collude with each other in the final group-stage matches to secure passage to the knockout round. To avoid this, FIFA may decide to settle group-stage draws with penalty kicks. Again, nothing has been determined.