2026 could be a very big year for American soccer.
Not only because it’s favored to co-host the World Cup that year, along with Canada and Mexico in supporting roles – with 60 of the games taking place in the United States and 10 apiece in the other nations, per the three-nation bid announced on Monday.
But because current U.S. men’s national team head coach Bruce Arena thinks that will be the year the Americans can truly compete to win their first World Cup title.
And in that sense, it would complete the arc from the 1994 World Cup, which was held stateside and remains the best-attended edition of the tournament. USA ’94 heralded the arrival of the Americans in the international game, as they survived the group stage for the first time in 64 years.
“In 1994, I think the U.S. was looked at (as) this emerging frontier in the game and FIFA wanted to bring the U.S. into the world’s game,” Arena said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “I think in 2026 we’re going to be fully emerged into the game and a big player.
“I think 2026 will be the time when we’re going to start talking about winning the World Cup, to be honest with you,” Arena continued. “It wasn’t going to be in 1994. It wasn’t going to be in 2010. But 2026 could be our time.”
Holding the tournament on home soil would plainly help that team. But Arena also thinks the program’s natural evolution will reach its apex then.
“We’re [hypothetically] the host country – one of the host countries – which is an advantage,” Arena said. “Think about where we’re going to be in nine more years. Think about where we were in 1994, ’98, 2002, keep going. Just think about where we will be with nine more years in our league [Major League Soccer], eight or nine more years of players developing all over the world, and then playing the World Cup in our country. I think we’re going to be positioned to be a big player by 2026.”
Arena couched that it isn’t a given, of course, that the U.S.’s joint bid will win the right to host that tournament, although it is widely expected to.
It’s worth noting that, in the modern era, the U.S. has never advanced past the quarterfinals. It did so once, in 2002 – under Arena in his first stint in charge. The Americans finished third at the first-ever World Cup in 1930, but it was a 13-team tournament back then, with many of the big nations opting to sit out.
The USMNT is currently in a battle to save a qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup that got off to a rocky start with back-to-back losses, followed by a win and a tie after Arena was brought back to bail out a sinking ship.
But, as Arena sees it, things could look very different nine years from now.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.