World Cup shake-up
International soccer’s top tournament expands in size
Team USA doesn’t have to worry about qualifying for the 2026 World Cup soccer tournament because the United States—as well as Canada and Mexico—is one of the host countries. The U.S. men’s national team (USMNT) is automatically in.
However, with the tournament still three years away, the USMNT's path to winning the cup on its own soil—and becoming the first team from outside Europe or South America to claim the globe’s most coveted trophy—may have gotten a lot harder.
FIFA recently voted to expand its showcase event from 32 to 48 teams. Instead of eight groups of four teams, the tournament will now have 12. And instead of featuring 64 matches over a month, the World Cup will now feature 104 matches in approximately 40 days.
“The biggest beneficiary of the new format will be FIFA’s bank accounts,” Henry Bushnell wrote for Yahoo! Sports. “The 2026 World Cup, even as an 80-game competition, would have smashed all sorts of attendance and revenue records. The extra 24 games will push FIFA closer to, and probably beyond, the $11 billion in revenue it has budgeted for the next four years (That’s up from a record $7.5 billion last cycle).”
As in the past, following a three-game, round-robin preliminary round, the top two teams in each group will advance to the knockout round, which will now have twice as many teams (32) as before (16). Also reaching the single-elimination bracket will be the top eight third-place teams from each group.
Which eight third-place teams advance will depend on factors such as points—three are awarded for each win, one for each tie—goal differential, and other tiebreakers.
FIFA had already toyed with the idea of tweaking the World Cup’s format for several months. While expansion from 32 to 48 teams was a foregone conclusion, soccer’s international governing body initially proposed placing teams into 16 groups of three. Recognizing the problems inherent in such a format, FIFA officials decided to scrap it.
“The glaring flaws, of course, are the necessarily imbalanced rhythm of the games and the likelihood that teams could advance without winning a game or even scoring a goal,” Bushnell wrote in December when FIFA still pondered the group-of-three format. “Two points would be enough for second place in a three-team group unless the third game is also a draw, which would leave all three teams tied on two points and separated by tiebreakers.”
For Team USA, the good news is that under FIFA’s new format, the Yanks’ chances of reaching the knockout stage are much better: After battling Wales and England to draws in its first two matches at last year’s World Cup in Qatar, the USMNT edged Iran 1-0 in its third and final group-stage match to advance. Had the United States tied or lost to Iran under the new format, the Americans still might have made it.
In other words, an early stumble against an inferior opponent would be much less costly under the new format.
The bad news, however, is that Team USA’s odds of advancing deep into the tournament will be much longer. Since reaching the semifinals at the first World Cup in 1930, no U.S. men’s team has ever gotten past the quarterfinals at any World Cup tournament, and only two have even gotten that far, the last one in 2002. The chances of the Americans even reaching the quarterfinals under the new format would be slimmer, depending on their seeding.
To illustrate: At last year’s World Cup, the USMNT’s reward for placing second in its group was a date with the Netherlands, traditionally a European powerhouse. The Dutch have placed fourth or higher three times since the United States last hosted the World Cup in 1994, finishing as the runner-up to Spain in 2010. The Netherlands easily dispatched Team USA last December, defeating the Americans 3-1.
Surviving the first elimination match against a team like the Netherlands would be tough enough. Having to pull off two stunning upsets just to reach the quarterfinals would be a tall order, to say the least.
FIFA isn’t the only sports entity that has recently added teams to championship tournaments or is considering doing so. Major League Baseball expanded its postseason field from 10 teams—five from each league—to 12 last season, eliminating wild card playoff games and allowing the top two teams in each league to automatically advance to division series. Under that format, the Philadelphia Phillies became the first team to reach a World Series after finishing below second place in its division during the regular season.
The NCAA, meanwhile, is considering widening the fields for its Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments from 68 teams apiece to 80.
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