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Volume 21 No. 30
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U.S. Soccer back to work after securing World Cup

U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn and his colleagues have eight years to get ready for the world’s biggest sporting event.
Photo: AP Images

It was nearly 3 a.m. ET on the morning of Wednesday, June 13, when U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn arrived at Omnicom’s 42nd Street offices in midtown Manhattan, awaiting perhaps the biggest moment in the federation’s history — the fate of its joint bid with Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 World Cup.

 

Encamped in an office space with two PR staffers on the 15th floor set aside by the federation’s public relations firm, FleishmanHillard, Flynn subsisted for the next four hours on little more than coffee, Diet Coke and nervous energy while he communicated with his colleagues at the U.S. Soccer headquarters in Chicago and at the FIFA Congress in Moscow.

 

The tension and the number of people in the room grew steadily until shortly before 7 a.m., when FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced that the United bid had won. A raucous but relieved cheer went up in the room, a welcome change from the shock and disappointment Flynn and the U.S. delegation — which included former President Bill Clinton and then federation president Sunil Gulati — had experienced eight years earlier when the U.S. lost its solo bid to host the 2022 Cup to tiny Qatar.

 

What was said after the successful United bid to host the 2026 World Cup:

“On Dec. 2, 2010 [the day the U.S. lost it’s bid for the 2022 World Cup to Qatar], I couldn’t decide if I never wanted to go anywhere near this again or if we should start working on the next one right away. But I’m glad we did.”
Sunil Gulati, former president of U.S. Soccer

“The FIFA Congress made a smart and reasonable choice in selecting the North American bid over Morocco in Moscow, in accordance with the technical report. There is almost no assembly required here, whereas Morocco basically had to build all the necessary infrastructure from scratch. As such, for the first time since the 2006 World Cup, FIFA went with the less risky option.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens, Yahoo Sports

“It came down to one single thing, $14 billion in revenue for FIFA and the United States or $7 billion for Morocco. We all know how FIFA reacts when that dollar sign has a few more zeros behind it.”
Taylor Twellman, ESPN

“In the end, inclusiveness helped seal [the] victory. [Carlos] Cordeiro’s predecessor, [Sunil] Gulati, was smart to include Mexico and Canada in the bid even though the U.S. could have hosted a 48-team tournament on its own. But having the two U.S. neighbors on board reduced the chances that other countries would vote against the U.S. at a time when it has retreated within itself politically and seen its reputation decline in countries around the world. Mexico and Canada won’t even host that many games — just 10 each — but their presence in the bid was essential.”
Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated

“It’s a monumental step in our collective mission to further advance the game of soccer here and to do what we can to grow the game around the world.”
­— Don Garber, commissioner, MLS

Despite the welcome news, there were no bottles of champagne on the conference room table and no lavish celebratory dinner being planned for the nearby Capital Grille. Flynn’s sights were already set much further down the road.

 

“It’s a big day,” he said. “But an even bigger day is one day after the 2026 World Cup Final — what does our industry look like then? This is a moment to celebrate, but it also begins a stretch of eight years that with the right decisions and investments gives us a platform that can really bode well for our sport.”

 

U.S. Soccer now finds itself running on two tracks until 2026: the defined path of hosting a World Cup and the subsequent logistics; and the need to harness the energy, interest and excitement that comes with welcoming the world’s biggest sporting event.

 

For the former, Flynn and his fellow executives have a long list of priorities. Perhaps most prominent is finalizing which cities and stadiums will host those 80 World Cup games. The United bid had the massive benefit over fellow finalist Morocco of having all the necessary infrastructure in place, but of the 23 North American cities, including 17 in the U.S., that have been proposed as host sites, only 16 across those three countries and 10 in the U.S. will be chosen. Each venue will require its own activation strategy for everything from sales to promotions to operations, the details of which are a long way from being settled.

 

Flynn, who oversees the business of the federation, knows that there will be massive opportunities in this buildup and that the federation’s financial picture could be dramatically different by the time the games kick off. Almost all of U.S. Soccer’s existing commercial deals expire in 2022, including its two biggest revenue-generating contracts — an apparel deal with Nike and a broadcast contract with ESPN, Fox and Univision. The contract with Soccer United Marketing to serve as its commercial representative also expires that year.  

 

Flynn said that while increasing revenue will be important, it’s also crucial that U.S. Soccer is aligning with partners that share the same vision for what the sport can look like in the country in July 2026 after the tournament ends.

 

“We didn’t go after the World Cup because there will be this financial bonus afterward,” Flynn said. “It’s to have a platform and a runway of eight years to move toward that day after. We went after the ’18 and ’22 World Cups for the same reason — it’s about the development of the sport, players, coaches, referees; that’s our product, that’s the engine to get us to where we really want to go.”

 

By the end of that fateful day, Flynn was headed back to Chicago. While some of the federation’s employees planned to take a few days off — especially those who spent the last six-plus months traveling the world on behalf of the bid — he won’t be one of them. “We’re already back to work,” he said.