Leaders of 2026 World Cup Bid Press on Amid U.S. Soccer Power Struggle

The full effects of the failure of the United States men’s soccer team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup have yet to emerge, but for John Kristick, the executive director of the joint American, Canadian and Mexican bid to host the tournament in 2026, the beat must go on.

“We know that sport comes in highs and lows, and this is something we have to look beyond,” Kristick said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m focused on the next 140 days.”

That will get Kristick to March 16, when the United Bid Committee leading the North American World Cup bid must submit its documents to the FIFA Council, which will review them and then make a recommendation to the full FIFA membership before a June vote on the host country, or, as in Kristick’s case, countries, for 2026.

The only competition Kristick’s organization faces is from Morocco, a head-to-head contest that the United States-led effort is widely expected to win because of its built-in advantages in stadiums, hotels and infrastructure — not to mention the record profits it could promise FIFA.

But forgive Kristick for treading cautiously. After all, he was the managing director of the bid the last time the United States campaigned to host the World Cup; that time, with the 2018 and 2022 editions of the quadrennial tournament up for grabs, the United States lost out to Qatar for the 2022 event.

In the years since that vote in December 2010, Kristick said, “there weren’t many days that I didn’t spend thinking about it.”

But now a potential wrench has been thrown into his plans. It is not that the American men will not be present, as was expected, at next year’s event in Russia. It is how the team’s stunning elimination has affected the United States Soccer Federation, and more specifically its president, Sunil Gulati.

Gulati, who is also the chairman of the board of directors for the 2026 bid, was widely expected to coast to a fourth and final four-year term as U.S. Soccer’s president in a February vote before riding off into the sunset in a leading role managing a successful World Cup. But in the wake of the American team’s failure, prominent voices within the sport in the United States have openly questioned Gulati’s leadership, and by extension his continued stewardship of U.S. Soccer’s biggest initiatives. And while he has not yet announced his candidacy, three challengers already have gone public with plans to challenge Gulati in the presidential election.

“Sunil is a great proponent of the bid; he’s the chairman of the bid,” Kristick said before pivoting to the bigger picture. “This is Canada, Mexico and the U.S. trying to bring the bid to North America.”

So if U.S. Soccer has a new president when it is time to submit the bid, Kristick said, he will work with him or her just the same. The good news is that, at least for now, the bid seems to have the widespread public support that it needs.

On Tuesday, the United Bid Committee announced survey results that reported — unsurprisingly — that 77 percent of respondents surveyed across the three countries were in favor of co-hosting the World Cup.

“It’s a reaffirmation of what we’ve been feeling from May, which is a tremendous amount of support across the three nations,” Kristick said.

Still, over the next 140 days the joint bid must continue to navigate the always-murky waters of FIFA politics. Gulati’s troubles already have caught the attention of FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s inner circle, with some wondering whether Infantino could be facing the weakening of a crucial ally just as his national federation is seeking to win the rights to put on soccer’s showcase event.

In addition to his role as U.S. Soccer’s president, Gulati is a member of the governing FIFA Council. He would retain that post even if he does not win, or does not enter, the race for the U.S. Soccer presidency. But defeat at home would certainly diminish his power in American soccer just when the North American bid needs it the most. Gulati himself hinted at that fact as he has rebuffed calls for his resignation this month.

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