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Successful World Cup bid belongs to entire Seattle soccer community

Our soccer culture likely pushed us across the finish line.

Photo courtesy of Sounders FC

SEATTLE — Maya Mendoza-Exstrom sounded as if her voice was on the verge of breaking. Speaking to a crowd of several hundred people at Pier 62, Mendoza-Exstrom had been given the honor of being the final speaker at the event celebrating Seattle’s successful effort to be a 2026 Men’s World Cup host city.

Flanked by children and Seattle Sounders legend Kasey Keller, Mendoza-Exstrom’s speech thoughtfully illustrated what made this particular bid special. While other cities have newer, shinier stadiums; are located in more strategic locations; have larger populations; or possess more pop-culture cachet, Seattle’s bid had an authenticity that simply could not be matched.

Although Mendoza-Exstrom is now the Sounders Chief Operating Officer and one of the key players in Seattle’s World Cup bid, this was almost as much of a personal project as a professional one. Mendoza-Exstrom’s father had worked closely on Seattle’s previous World Cup bid — an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get in on the transformative 1994 tournament — and she often referred to that original bid book for both inspiration and a sort of touchstone when she needed to reminded of the values that would guide this new bid.

Unlike this bid, which was funded by a full-blown soccer organization and legitimately global brands, that first one was largely driven by volunteers and youth-soccer organizations — really the region’s only soccer infrastructure that still existed in the early 1990s. But the spirit that fueled the ‘94 bid still lives in 2022.

“Today we make good on the work 30 years ago by those soccer moms and dads who first dared to dream this dream, that Seattle could and should host a World Cup,” Mendoza-Exstrom told the crowd. “We have to express our gratitude to those who dared to dream that dream. To honor that dream it’s our turn to think about bringing that legacy of this event to Seattle. That legacy has been at the heart of this bid.”

When Mendoza-Exstrom spoke those words, her voice quivering just a little, I’ll admit that I also teared up a bit.

I think it was that I personally felt included in my own way, and so should you. This was a triumph not just of a region that has blossomed in the last 30 years, but a soccer community that is now unrivaled in this country.

From Mendoza-Exstrom to Sounders owner and bid chair Adrian Hanauer, these were people with lived experiences, who still felt the sting of that previous failure and were personally invested in not letting it happen again. The Sounders organization, in a way, can even trace itself back to that failed bid, as the A-League team that revived the name was effectively born from the ashes of that unsuccessful effort.

The region’s soccer infrastructure that formed the backbone of the bid — Starfire Soccer Complex, the University of Washington, Seattle University and Sounders FC Center at Longacres — all have deep ties to the soccer community. While there was no shortage of government officials on hand at Thursday’s celebration, notably absent among the list of speakers were non-soccer sports organizations. They will eventually play their parts, I have no doubt, but they were not the ones who made this happen. We, the larger Washington soccer community, can claim this achievement as our own.

That same community stands to benefit as well, with the Rave Foundation’s 26 Fields for 2026 initiative aiming to provide physical infrastructure for the state’s underprivileged youth just one example.

“I screamed and then I cried,” Mendoza-Exstrom told me earlier in the day about her reaction to the announcement. “It was a lot of soul work. We felt we did everything we could do. We didn’t sell ourselves out, we didn’t sell out the soccer community. We did it through that deep personalization, that deep history that we have and that’s our best case. We poured everything into this.”

Make no mistake, the World Cup is big business. There are reasons to be cynical. There are reasons we should be skeptical. Our city will be transformed in ways that we don’t always appreciate and potentially won’t always like. We can acknowledge this and still be happy, still be proud, still be optimistic about what this all means.

Seattle being chosen as one of the 16 cities to host the 2026 World Cup is not just a massive opportunity, but it’s a material acknowledgement of our place in the soccer world. I have no illusions about hosting a World Cup final — my suspicion is that it would be a bit of an upset if we’re still hosting games as late as the quarterfinals — but I do think Seattle and the Pacific Northwest will end up being the stars of this tournament. This comes with responsibility — to be gracious and inclusive, with a need to watch out for our most vulnerable community members — but it’s also an awesome opportunity.

The Pier 62 event was a sort of teaser. That’s where the Fan Fest activities will be centered, creating an entry point for every visitor to feel connected to the World Cup. Notably, while other cities were focusing their celebratory events on press conferences, this was something open to the public, featuring free food, free beer and a free concert. I can only imagine what it will be like when there are actual games attached and I couldn’t be more excited.

Other takeaways from Thursday’s announcement:

Grass and Lumen Field

We’ve long known that laying down a grass surface was a requirement of a successful bid, but details of how Seattle would make that happen have been hard to come by. That’s finally changing. I had a chance to talk to Lumen Field General Manager Zach Hensley and he clarified that the current FieldTurf will be completely removed and replaced by a “native grass surface.” Lumen Field was originally built under the assumption that it would have a grass surface, which means much of infrastructure required already exists. That doesn’t mean it will be an easy process.

The work is expected to start as soon as the 2025 Seattle Seahawks season ends, likely in early 2026. Lumen Field will first need to install some FIFA-mandated tools, like vacuums, heating elements and grow lights that are designed to keep the grass at optimum quality. If all goes according to plan, it’s possible the Sounders and Reign could play on it in the early part of their 2026 seasons.

But FIFA requires that no activities occur on the field for about 60 days before the tournament starts, which likely means the club teams won’t be able to use it from mid-April until the end of the tournament in mid-July. The plan is for the Sounders and OL Reign to be able finish out their seasons on the grass surface. Presumably, the Seahawks would also play their 2026 season on it.

Beyond that is still to be determined. I imagine a best-case scenario is that the field holds up just fine during NFL season and all parties agree to keep the grass. Perhaps more plausibly, the grass would be removed at the end of 2026 and FieldTurf would return during the following offseason.

Was Vancouver key?

When Vancouver re-entered the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup, there was some concern that it could diminish Seattle’s chances of hosting. If the goal was to simply be able to claim that the Pacific Northwest was being served, Vancouver would certainly check that box.

In the end, of course, both cities were selected and Sounders President of Business Operations Peter Tomozawa actually suggested Vancouver’s inclusion helped solidify Seattle’s bid.

“That’s such a great city and I think this is going to bring us closer together over time,” Tomozawa said.

More games vs. later games

Although it has been reported that Vancouver is going to host six games, everyone I talked to insisted that they still had no idea how many games Seattle would get. The estimates I was told ranged anywhere from three to seven. Those details aren’t likely to be sussed out for at least a few more weeks, and maybe much longer.

If Seattle officials have a say, it sounds like they’d prefer to have more games than later games. Based on FIFA’s self-reported viewership numbers, about 200 million people watch the average World Cup game around the world. That’s very similar to the Super Bowl’s worldwide audience.

In other words, Seattle has a chance to have Super Bowl-sized eyeballs on our city multiple times over the course of the tournament. The more times the better, as far as local organizers are concerned.