When it was announced that the United States of America, Canada and Mexico will co-host the 2026 World Cup, there was jubilation among the soccer communities in each nation.
[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]
For the first time in 32 years the World Cup would be coming to North America and there is euphoria that a new generation of soccer fans will appear across the three countries.
But focusing solely on the U.S. (which will host 60 of the 80 games in the expanded 48-team format), what will this mean?
A man who knows about the impact of the last World Cup on home soil better than most is Cobi Jones, the all-time appearance leader for the U.S. men’s national team with 164 caps from 1992-2004 and he played for the USMNT in the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
There is no doubt in his mind as to how significant this moment is for the soccer landscape in the U.S. for the foreseeable future.
“It is a historic event,” Jones said. “For a nation to be able to host two World Cups. I understand it is a United bid with the U.S. being part of it having hosted in 1994 and now again in 2026, there are very few countries who are able to say they’ve hosted two World Cups. And for someone like me who grew up in the early 70s and 80s when soccer really was relevant in the United States, I didn’t think I’d see one World Cup, let alone two. It is pretty special.”
[ MORE: Where will the 2026 World Cup games be? ]
Jones, now 47, was 24 years old when the last World Cup in the U.S. kicked off.
He fondly remembers stepping out in front of over 84,000 fans to play for the U.S. against Brazil in the last 16 and wants that buzz to return in eight years time.
“It was pride,” Jones reflected. “The moment I was able to walk out on July 4 into Stanford Stadium, walking out against Brazil and seeing them walk out right next to me as a young man and I’ve got Romario and Bebeto doing their holding hands walk out into the center of the field… then looking up at that moment and seeing a full stadium with the majority being American fans. That was a moment of pride for a sport no-one thought would be successful in the United States. People from all around the world looked down on soccer in the United States. And to see that, it gave incentive to soccer to continue to move forward and grow.”
Many still look back to the 1994 World Cup as the seminal moment for the domestic game in the U.S. as it launched not only Major League Soccer but whole industries around the sport when it came to media, business and infrastructure.
It was the moment the world seemed to realize that soccer in the U.S. had potential.
“That World Cup impacted me the same way it impacted so many more. It was a wonderful surprise,” Jones explained. “It was an inspiration for more investment in the sport in the United States and maybe a little more respect form overseas. I think as well we saw the legacy that it left behind and you have the United States, basically the 1994 World Cup built from the top down. You had the establishment of MLS and that top down development and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’m hoping that with such a long run-up we see the investment from the ground up. More investment into infrastructure into that side of things where we see a grow into youth levels. That would be a logical use of money in my mind.”
The landscape of soccer in the U.S. is very different now compared to 1994.
MLS has grown to 26 teams. Every major league across the world is available to watch on television or online, plus huge summer friendly tournaments pack out stadiums as well as the rapid growth in popularity of the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams.
What’s the next step?
“I would say now soccer has got the full acceptance. I still think we are in a little bit of a transition and everyone is still trying to get a grasp of where soccer is at in this country,” Jones said. “When I was growing up nobody gave soccer any kind of respect and you were an outsider if you were into the sport. It grew into the fact where you got the development that now it’s like ‘okay, you’re cool and hip’ if you like soccer because it’s a little different. Now I think we’re at a point where we are just on the cusp of where it is starting to turn and on the edge of where it could be mainstream. We are seeing full stadiums, MLS is growing soccer-specific stadiums non-stop. But I still think there needs to be a transition where it is a day-to-day topic amongst the general population.
“We have it already if you ask people ‘do you watch MLS or such and such team?’ and people will say ‘oh no, I don’t, I’m not a fan of that’ or ‘oh yeah, I’m a fan.'” Just the fact that it’s not ‘oh, what’s that?’ is a massive change in this country!” Jones chuckled. “People know now. You could say ‘LAFC’ and people will say, ‘that new team in LA!’ and that’s a change. That’s big. Now we have to get it to the point where it’s on a daily basis where people are talking and there’s no hesitation at all about saying ‘did you see the game today?’ and that’s the next big step for soccer in the U.S.”
Whether or not the 2026 World Cup will bring the sport into the mainstream conversation on a permanent basis remains to be seen, but one area Jones believes cannot be neglected is attracting players and interest from communities which have previously been left out.
With kids currently at the age of nine or ten possibly able to play for the USMNT at the 2026 World Cup as a teenage star a la Christian Pulisic, no community in the U.S. should left out of what promises to be an exhilarating eight-year journey.
“Off the field, we have got a long runway [until 2026] and as resources are put towards the growth for the game, I’d like to see more in the youth game but particularly into those undeserved communities or whatever you’d like to call it. The urban population. Just to expand the reach of soccer into those communities and possibly bring others who don’t have the chance to even just play the game or even just to build the sport more,” Jones said. “Let’s not forget, what we are starting to see in this day and age, a perfect example is someone like Pulisic, going into the national team at aged 17 or 18, and showing that they can play well. If that happens and the timing happens to be just right, basically a nine-year-old today will be able to play in the 2026 World Cup.
“We need to make sure our reach, our coaching, our philosophy, it’s the youth today and along that whole runaway up to 2026. The journey starts now and don’t leave people behind. Don’t leave those underserved communities behind. Let’s make sure the diversity is there. And by diversity I mean making a concerted effort to get into areas where people wouldn’t normally reached by U.S. Soccer because the thought of ‘oh, they’ll find us’ that isn’t working anymore. You’ve got to go out and find those players and show them what they need to do and where they need to go.”
Although there is plenty of focus on 2026 and having a U.S. team able to compete and do well, Jones is eager to remind everyone that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar comes before that.
Jones believes the USMNT cannot afford to miss a second-straight World Cup and expects his former teammate Earnie Stewart to focus on the here and now as well as the future in his new role as General Manager.
“There is going to be a lot of excitement about it being here in the United States [in 2026] but we have to remember that 2022 is right around the corner. There will be a focus on the players and the general plan going forward. That entails the next 18 months. The next World Cup doesn’t start four years from now. It starts two years from now,” Jones said. “We do not want to skip over this World Cup. The last thing the United States needs is the disappointment of not being at two World Cups. We need to start the focus now on the short-term and the long-term, and that’s part of the reason why the addition of a GM and Earnie Stewart being hired in that new job, he can keep the focus on both.”
What should USMNT fans being hope for from their team in 2026?
Jones was part of the 2002 World Cup squad which reached the quarterfinals before being harshly knocked out by Germany. In the modern era that is the USA’s best-ever finish in a tournament.
If the future USMNT replicate that finish, then surely the fans from all over the U.S. who are attracted to watching a team on home soil will stick around for a lot longer.
“On the pitch I’d like to see the U.S. do well and at that point if they can get beyond the quarterfinal stage and get into the semis,” Jones said. “We have a great crop of talent who are actually playing on a consistent basis in Europe and in the U.S. with the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, all of these type of players who I feel can contribute on the pitch in the future along with some of the older players you see now. You will see a good U.S. side that won’t disappoint. I would like to see them go beyond the quarterfinals. That would be a success.”