The bidding process for the 2018 World Cup promises to be one of the most fiercely fought in recent memory, and U.S. Soccer plans to throw itself right into the middle of the fray.
Officially, America's soccer governing body has not even confirmed that it will apply to host the tournament, but don't be fooled. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati started to show his hand last week and early indications are that the federation will throw its full weight behind a campaign aimed at staging soccer's greatest event for the second time.
What are the U.S.'s chances for bidding success? What impact would the tournament have on soccer in the country? And what potential roadblocks and opponents stand in the way? Let's take a look.
England – It can put together a bidding committee packed with heavyweight soccer and political figures. Chelsea's Peter Kenyon, Manchester United's David Gill and athlete-turned-politician Lord Coe, who secured the 2012 Olympics for London, would all likely be involved. The prospect of a tournament in the birthplace of the game and a World Cup final at Wembley Stadium would be enticing. Chances: 33 percent.
United States – Chances: 28 percent.
Russia – This would be one of the wealthiest bids, with big businessmen such as Roman Abramovich likely to lend their support. Their biggest negative: sorry to say this, but the country itself. Moscow is scandalously expensive and Russia is hardly most people's idea of a dream World Cup destination. Chances: 16 percent.
Australia – Being a southern hemisphere nation, the Aussie winter may provide the perfect climate for a tournament to be held in June. Impressive stadiums are already in place, including the 2000 Olympic Stadium in Sydney and the massive Melbourne Cricket Ground. Chances: 12 percent.
China – The bids of China and Australia are both worthy but there is no feeling that the Asian continent is "overdue" after Japan and South Korea staged the 2002 World Cup. China is definitely a future destination for the tournament, but probably not just yet. Chances: 7 percent.
Benelux – Belgium and Holland did a decent job with the 2000 European Championships, but the World Cup might be a step too far. They would have a huge amount of work to do in terms of infrastructure because there simply aren't enough big stadiums. Chances: 3 percent.
The FIFA rotation policy that took the 2010 World Cup to South Africa and the 2014 World Cup to Brazil was perfect for the U.S. Everything seemed set up for the tournament to fall into the Americans' lap since CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) was the next federation in line for 2018.
However, that all changed on October 29, 2007 when FIFA altered the system. Now, only the previous two hosting federations are excluded from applying – in this case, Africa and South America.
The U.S. can effectively blame the South Americans for the change. From the early days of the 2014 bidding process, CONMEBOL (the South American Football Association) threw its weight behind Brazil, and that led to Argentina and Colombia eventually withdrawing their bids. By the time the final process came around, Brazil was left as the sole candidate.
The commonly held belief at FIFA is that competition breeds excellence, and the way the hosting rights were effectively handed to Brazil on a plate sparked calls for a return to a more open system. For the 2018 World Cup, only Europe, CONCACAF and Asia can submit bids (if you exclude Oceania, which has no appropriate candidates now that Australia has joined Asia). But there are still some heavyweight contenders.
"We are being very quiet about what we are doing," Gulati said. "We are going to make a decision by June 1. The bid specifications will not be out until next year, but we are confident that, whatever those specifications say, we would be in a position very quickly to meet the technical requirements.
"In the end, it comes down to campaigning, and we think the World Cup would be fabulous here again."
THE REASONS WHY
Why? Because everyone wants to host a World Cup, but not everyone can.
Because, along with the Olympics, it is one of the two greatest international events in sports. Because hosting the World Cup, and hosting it well, conveys immense prestige upon the country and pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into its economy. And because it would finally put the United States on the world soccer map once and for all.
Still need convincing? Well, how about the fact that host nations have an excellent record of success (see France in 1998 and South Korea in 2002), so it would provide the U.S. the best chance of making a meaningful run into the later rounds.
Most of all, U.S. Soccer doesn't even have to think about stadiums. Thanks to the NFL, more than enough big venues are already in place. The 1994 World Cup in America still holds the overall attendance record for any World Cup, despite having only 24 teams and fewer games than every World Cup since.
Other logistical planning (such as security) will be helped by Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympics.
"I have said a couple of times to the guys at FIFA that we could have hosted the World Cup in 1998 and not used any stadium that even existed in 1994," Gulati said. "We could have done the exact same thing in 2002 and 2006, and every one of those would have had a higher attendance than every World Cup previously."
But what about the game itself?
Certainly, America has put down far stronger soccer roots since 1994, and, by 2018, Major League Soccer will have nearly doubled in age. Continuing increases in the Mexican, South American and Caribbean communities will only help the growing popularity of the sport.
THE REASONS WHY NOT
In part, the bidding process is a popularity contest. Right now, the worldwide opinion of the U.S. is pretty low due to the war in Iraq.
Then there's the appeal of another European World Cup. The 2014 tournament will represent the first time that two consecutive World Cups will be held outside of Europe. And if the U.S., China or Australia were successful in 2018, that would make it three.
Would the voting members be happy with a situation that saw at least 16 years elapse between Germany 2006 and the next World Cup in that soccer-mad continent?
Russia may have the most developed bid at this premature stage, but the Russians could be hurt by the decision to go east for the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. England could well pose the biggest threat.
THE POTENTIAL IMPACT
We can only imagine. Who knows how big MLS will be by 2018, but if it continues at its current rate, then it is fair to assume that in 10 years a position as a solid second-tier league just behind the likes of England, Spain and Italy is a realistic goal.
MLS chiefs are loathe to talk about laying down challenges to other North American sports, but it is fair to say they have hockey in their sights, with basketball a future target.
If soccer has reached its current level in the U.S. from a standing start prior to 1994, just think what momentum could be generated by staging a World Cup from a reasonably established position? The growth in terms of player numbers, domestic attendances and general public awareness could be off the charts. Time will tell.
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