SEATTLE — Maya Mendoza-Exstrom sounded like her voice was about to crack. Speaking to a crowd of several hundred at Pier 62, Mendoza-Exstrom had the honor of being the final speaker at the event celebrating Seattle’s successful bid to host the 2026 Men’s World Cup.
Flanked by kids and Seattle Sounders legend Kasey Keller, Mendoza-Exstrom’s speech carefully illustrated what made this particular offering special. While other cities have newer, shinier stadiums; they are located in more strategic places; have larger populations; or possess more pop culture cache, Seattle’s offering had an authenticity that simply couldn’t be matched.
Although Mendoza-Exstrom is now the Sounders’ COO and one of the key players in Seattle’s World Cup bid, this was almost as much 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 enter the transformative 1994 tournament, and she often referred to that original bid book for inspiration and as a kind of touchstone when I needed to remember the values that would guide this new offer.
Unlike this offering, which was funded by a full-fledged football organization and legitimately global brands, the former was largely driven by volunteers and youth football organisations, in reality the only football infrastructure in the region still in existence. in the early 1990s. But the spirit that fueled the 1994 bid still lives on in 2022.
“Today we fulfill the work of 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 the legacy of this event to Seattle. That legacy has been at the core of this candidacy.”
When Mendoza-Exstrom spoke those words, her voice trembled a little, I must admit that I also cried a little.
I think it was because I personally felt included in my own way, and you should too. This was a triumph not only for a region that has flourished in the last 30 years, but for a football community that is now unrivaled in this country.
From Mendoza-Exstrom to Sounders offering owner and chairman Adrian Hanauer, these were people with lived experiences, who still felt the sting of that earlier failure and were personally committed to not letting it happen again. The Sounders organization, in a way, can even go back to that failed bid, as the A-League team that revived the name was effectively born from the ashes of that failed effort.
The region’s soccer infrastructure that formed the backbone of the bid – Starfire Soccer Complex, the University of Washington, Seattle University and the Sounders FC Center in Longacres – have deep ties to the soccer community. While there was no shortage of government officials present at Thursday’s celebration, non-soccer sports organizations were notably absent from the list of speakers. They will eventually do their part, I have no doubt, but they were not the ones who made this happen. We, the largest soccer community in Washington, can claim this achievement as our own.
That same community will also benefit, with the Rave Foundation’s 26 Fields for 2026 initiative, which aims to provide physical infrastructure for the state’s disadvantaged youth, just one example.
“I screamed and then I cried,” Mendoza-Exstrom told me earlier in the day of her reaction to the announcement. “It was a lot of soul work. We feel like we did all we could do. We didn’t sell out, we didn’t sell out to the football community. We did it through that deep customization, that deep story 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 why we should be skeptical. Our city will be transformed in ways we don’t always appreciate and potentially won’t always like. We can recognize this and still be happy, still proud, still optimistic about what it all means.
The selection of Seattle as one of the 16 cities to host the 2026 World Cup is not only a great opportunity, but a material recognition of our place in the world of soccer. I have no illusions about hosting a World Cup final; I suspect it would be a bit of a pain if we still held games until 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 kind and inclusive, with the need to care for the most vulnerable members of our community – but it’s also an incredible opportunity.
The Pier 62 event was kind of a teaser. That is where the Fan Fest activities will focus, creating an entry point for every visitor to feel connected to the World Cup. In particular, while other cities focused their celebration events on press conferences, this was something open to the public, with 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:
We’ve long known that putting in a turf surface was a requirement for a successful bid, but the details of how Seattle would make that happen have been hard to come by. That is finally changing. I had the opportunity to speak with Lumen Field General Manager Zach Hensley and he made it clear to me that the current FieldTurf will be removed entirely and replaced with a “native turf surface.” Lumen Field was originally built on the assumption that it would have a grass surface, which means that much of the necessary infrastructure already exists. That doesn’t mean it will be an easy process.
Work is expected to begin as soon as the Seattle Seahawks’ 2025 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 maintain the lawn in optimum quality. If all goes according to plan, it’s possible the Sounders and Reign could play in the early part of their 2026 seasons.
But FIFA requires that no activities take place on the pitch for about 60 days before the tournament begins, which likely means 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 finish their seasons on the grass surface. Presumably, the Seahawks would also play their 2026 season there.
Beyond that, it remains to be determined. I imagine that at best the field is well maintained during the NFL season and all parties agree to maintain the turf. Perhaps more plausibly, the turf would be removed in late 2026, with FieldTurf returning during the following offseason.
When Vancouver re-entered the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup, there was some concern that it might hurt Seattle’s chances of hosting. If the goal was simply to be able to claim that the Pacific Northwest is 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 suggested that Vancouver’s inclusion helped solidify Seattle’s bid.
“That’s a great city and I think this will bring us closer together over time,” Tomozawa said.
Although Vancouver was reported to host six games, everyone I spoke to insisted they still had no idea how many games Seattle would have. The estimates I was told ranged from three to seven. Those details likely won’t be ascertained for another few weeks, and perhaps much longer.
If Seattle officials have anything to say, it sounds like they’d rather have more games than later games. According to FIFA’s self-reported viewing figures, around 200 million people watch the average World Cup match worldwide. That’s very similar to the worldwide audience for the Super Bowl.
In other words, Seattle has the opportunity to have Super Bowl-sized eyes on our city several times over the course of the tournament. The more times the better, as far as local organizers are concerned.