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With FIFA vote Wednesday, World Cup could return to U.S. and make Baltimore debut in 2026

The most meaningful result this year in U.S. soccer will be announced the day before the start of the first FIFA World Cup in 32 years without an American men’s team competing.

On Wednesday morning, more than 200 member nations of soccer’s governing body will vote in Moscow to determine the host of the 2026 World Cup. The so-called United Bid, a joint entry from the United States, Mexico and Canada, is seen as the favorite over Morocco, with only a simple majority of votes needed.

The United States was the last North American country to host the quadrennial tournament, in 1994, but Baltimore was not among the nine cities that hosted a World Cup game then. A successful United Bid likely would deliver the world’s most watched sporting event to the area: As one of 23 United Bid finalists, Baltimore is well positioned to be named a host city when the decision is announced in 2020, whether as a national-team base or the site of a game.

“It's a little like signing day for that athlete who is going to pick their college,” said Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, an agency of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

“And the schools are the other side going, 'Oh, I hope he puts on my hat.' ... The nice part right now is we know there's only two hats they can put on. One is going to be the North American bid, or the other one's going to be the Morocco bid. And if you looked at all the documentation like I've looked at it, I don't know how they can go against the evaluation process.”

The United Bid outscored Morocco’s by a wide margin in FIFA’s inspection evaluation report, which said the candidates “represent two almost opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the nature of their bids." Carlos Cordeiro, the new president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, told reporters Sunday in Moscow that the U.S.-led bid has a “path to victory.” But the United States also was considered the favorite in 2010 to be awarded the 2022 World Cup, only to lose in the final round of voting to Qatar.

After Wednesday’s election, FIFA and the winning candidate’s bid committee will consult over the next two years before finalizing World Cup venues. Under the United Bid proposal, as many as 16 North American cities would stage the tournament’s 80 matches, with Canada and Mexico likely receiving a combined five or six host slots and the United States the rest.

In FIFA’s evaluation of stadiums, M&T Bank Stadium, currently undergoing a $120 million renovation, scored in the upper 50th percentile of potential United Bid venues. Baltimore tied with Miami and New York for the second-highest accommodation rating, a measure of the quantity and quality of nearby hotels.

The city fared worst in its transport evaluation — tied for fourth worst overall and second worst in the United States among United Bid finalists — but the report noted that each city is connected by highways and served by a number of rail services.

Baltimore’s biggest limitation might be its geography. In the Mid-Atlantic alone, it would vie with Washington, Philadelphia and New York/New Jersey for hosting responsibilities.

“There's a lot of things that bode well for Baltimore and M&T Bank Stadium,” Hasseltine said. “And when it's all said and done, I think the United Bid Committee and FIFA in 2020 will have a really hard time not putting our stadium on the list for matches.”

Hasseltine also said he was “very confident” that a United Bid win would bring the World Cup Team Workshop to Baltimore, which FIFA’s report regarded as the preferred choice over Nashville, Tenn. The workshop, held nine or 10 months before the World Cup, would bring together delegations from all 48 competing nations for an introduction to the tournament’s organization.

If Baltimore is not picked to host a game — according to the bid, M&T Bank Stadium’s most high-profile match would be a quarterfinal or third-place game — the area “most likely” would serve as a base camp for a national team, Hasseltine said. Cedar Lane Regional Park in Bel Air, McDonogh, Stevenson, Navy and Loyola Maryland, all of which have soccer facilities, would be under consideration for the camps that house squads in between games.

“There's opportunities there that don't necessarily come along with matches that will be good for Baltimore, good for Maryland, good for the growth of soccer in the region,” Hasseltine said.

But not necessarily good for sleeping. Hasseltine is all but expecting to pull an all-nighter before the early-morning vote Wednesday. (“It’s like college,” he joked.) That’s partly because of a Maryland Stadium Authority meeting he has to attend Tuesday night, partly because he doesn’t sleep much anyways.

But mostly it’s because opportunities like these come along even less often than a World Cup. Among the 17 U.S. cities named finalists in the United Bid, Baltimore is the only one without a team either currently playing in or set to join Major League Soccer.

“Anytime that you can be involved in something of this magnitude, it's kind of nerve-racking,” Hasseltine said. “It's like: 'OK, make the choice already.' ”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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