Gold Cup US El Salvador Soccer
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United States' Clint Dempsey (28) and El Salvador's Ivan Mancia (5) battle for a ball during a CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal soccer match in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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It’s a strange time for American soccer.

The United States will serve as lead host for the 2026 World Cup, FIFA announced Wednesday. Canada and Mexico also will host games.

But we aren’t even competing in the World Cup that begins Thursday in Russia.

The World Cup will arrive in 2026 to a country that has – fully and finally – embraced soccer. For decades, America treated soccer with the same bewilderment and contempt it showed for the metric system. Soccer was fine for the rest of the world, but not for us.

That’s changed. The 2014 World Cup final was watched by 26.2 million American TV viewers, up from 18 million in 2010. For contrast, consider that 6 million Americans watched the final game of this season’s NHL Stanley Cup and 31.9 million watched Game 7 of the 2017 World Series.

In 2026, more than 50 million Americans will watch a World Cup Final played on American soil. Soccer is still rejected by hordes of Americans over 55, but it’s all the rage for the under-35 crowd. Don’t like soccer? Sorry, the future looks bleak for you.

Games probably will be played in Colorado. Denver is one of 23 North American cities bidding for games in 2026. FIFA, soccer's world governing body, gave Mile High Stadium a 4.4 score (on a 5.0 scale), highest among the possible host cities. (Miami, San Francisco and Houston were close behind at 4.3.) FIFA rated Denver's accommodation capabilities 5.0, and the city's transportation 4.0, above the average score of 3.6. 

We’ll find out in two years if Colorado makes the cut for five to seven games, but there's every reason for optimism. Brace yourself: If you want to watch a World Cup game, get ready to battle the world for a ticket, which will run $500 . . . and up.

News about the 2026 victory takes some of the sting from America’s absence from the soccer party that begins Thursday.

But only some.

Confused coaching from the sidelines and uninspired playing on the field prevented America from traveling to Russia. We’re missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

It’s perilous to predict the future of our national team. We were on the rise, until suddenly we were on a descent.

In 2004, I traveled to Athens for the Olympics and spent three weeks talking and watching soccer with fans from across the world. The message was clear: They were worried about America. They saw us as a rising soccer power and wondered if we were getting ready to rule the world.

They had reason to worry. At the 2002 Japan/South Korea World Cup, America roared to the quarterfinals against Germany and would have stormed into the semis if anyone other than Oliver Kahn had been standing in front of the German goal. Kahn delivered one of the top goalkeeping performances in soccer history and carried Germany past the U.S., 1-0.

But the world noticed. Soccer fans saw a young, talented, hungry American team led by 20-year-old Landon Donovan. Anything, at that moment, seemed possible.

The promises the 2002 team made were never fulfilled. America, eighth in the world in 2002, has never finished higher than 12th since.

For a soccer fan, there’s nothing that matches watching your homeland battle for everything in the World Cup. In 2014, I watched most American games with my extended family at a packed Colorado bar. And I mean packed. It’s a good thing the fire marshal never showed up.

When America scored, the big room erupted in happy chaos. It was a deeply, joyfully patriotic crowd. I’m smiling right now thinking about those afternoons spent celebrating wins and mourning losses.

I’m bummed beyond bummed to miss all that nationalistic fun this summer.

Hope, though, beckons from the soccer horizon. Remember this: The host country is given great advantages in competition. This explains why South Korea reached the semis on their home turf in 2002.

We will miss the whole momentous show this summer.

But . . .

It’s not out of the realm of possibility we will rule the summer of 2026.

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