Kansas City-area officials celebrated in June when the U.S., Canada and Mexico won their combined bid to host the men’s World Cup soccer tournament in 2026. That’s because the city is one of 17 in the U.S. that have a chance at hosting matches.
“Kansas City is probably shining as much as it can and we still have so much room to grow,” Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James said June 14.
There’s work to be done: From the summer report card that soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, issued, the metropolitan area needs to grow its public transportation and flight accessibility. But there’s time to improve, as FIFA isn’t expected to name the 10 host cities until 2020.
Any World Cup game in Kansas City would be played in Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs have promised to widen the football field to meet FIFA soccer standards. FIFA’s grading scale goes from 1 to 5 (5 being the best), and Arrowhead gets a 4.2.
David Ficklin, director of Kansas City’s bid, said the stadium’s capacity is a bonus.
“When you talk about wanting to maximize revenue for a tournament, to have a 76,000-seat venue helps our chances immensely,” he said.
But four other cities — Denver (4.4), Houston (4.3), San Francisco (4.3) and Miami (4.3) — have better venue marks. That’s where the competition comes in. But Ficklin believes some cities will eliminate themselves because of their proximity to each other, such as Miami and Orlando.
Transportation in general is an issue for Kansas City’s bid: In the category FIFA calls “general accommodation and intercity connectivity,” Kansas City ranks last among U.S. finalists with a 3.3.
Ron Achelpohl, the director of transportation for the Mid-America Regional Council, said FIFA’s analysis wasn’t breaking news.
“The issue of our public transportation system is one we’ve known about for a long time and have been working hard to improve,” he said.
Then there’s the issue of getting to Kansas City. Coastal cities offer more international flights, which was a clear issue when Kansas City hosted a women’s soccer doubleheader this summer. Players for Brazil, Japan and Australia traveled to Kansas City with some draining itineraries.
Australian midfielder Alex Chidiac said her trip took more than 20 hours.
“I traveled here from Adelaide. Adelaide to Sydney. Sydney to San Fran,” she said after her arrival. “We actually missed our flight. So we had to go to San Diego and come here to Kansas. It’s been a really long travel day.”
But by 2026, Kansas City’s airport is expected to have its new single terminal, possibly with more international flights. Ficklin said he’s confident the new airport will be fully operational by the time the World Cup starts.
“Building big projects is incredibly difficult,” he said. “It’s kind of like making sausage. If you pay attention to every detail, it’s really messy and that’s what’s happening right now in our city.”
If proximity will be a deciding factor, other centrally located cities like Denver and Nashville may end up with games instead of Kansas City.
Denver has a Major League Soccer team in the Colorado Rapids. And Nashville, which is scheduled to have an MLS expansion team in 2020, was a host site Tuesday for a friendly against Mexico.
But Ficklin said Kansas City’s passion for soccer gives it an edge. Sporting Kansas City has sold out 118 consecutive regular and postseason home matches.
“We’ve changed the nature of our sport where we have developed a true soccer culture. Real fans who love the game and are smart,” Ficklin said.
No timetable has been set for when FIFA will inspect each potential host city.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.