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March Qualifier is a Final Chance to Make Orlando’s Case as a 2026 Host City

The City Beautiful has a chance to make a good impression on the hosting comittee.

Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

The United States will jointly host the 2026 World Cup alongside Mexico and Canada, with the U.S. getting the lion’s share of games. The host cities have not yet been determined, but FIFA has said previously that an announcement on which cities will be used should be coming in the first or second quarter of 2022. FIFA’s tour of the various prospective host cities wrapped up recently, so now the speculation can really ramp up over where games will be played. Certain cities on the list are likely locks to host or very close to being a lock, with Los Angeles, New York and Dallas slotting into the category nicely for varying reasons.

The question for Orlando City fans is what the chances are for the City Beautiful when it comes to getting some games. Fortunately, Orlando has gotten lots of chances to show off its ability to host both big games and big tournaments in recent memory. Exploria Stadium itself has hosted World Cup qualifiers, the SheBelieves Tournament and Concacaf Gold Cup matches, to name just a few. The purple palace will get another chance to show off its hosting chops at the end of March, when the United States Men’s National Team takes on Panama in its last 2022 World Cup qualifier on home soil.

Simply put, this is a great chance for Orlando to show what it can do with hosting a high-profile match, doing so likely very close to when FIFA will make its final decisions on host cities. It should be noted that Exploria Stadium itself wouldn’t be hosting games, with the much larger Camping World Stadium the venue under consideration. So, while Orlando City’s home isn’t under consideration, what happens surrounding the qualifier could leave a good-last minute impression on tournament organizers.

There are a number of things that go into the criteria to host games for a big tournament held in the United States. Some of the bigger boxes to check are hotels, ease of getting to the stadium, parking, public transit options, and how desirable the city is to visit. Having a big soccer imprint helps, but isn’t super necessary when it comes to the World Cup. It’s the World Cup for crying out loud, so people will go if you have it somewhere ridiculous, like oh I don’t know, in a jungle * cough cough* Manaus! *cough cough* Who said that?

Orlando has a number of things working for it when it comes to those big boxes. Not only are there a number of hotels and Airbnb locations in the downtown area, but the close proximity of Walt Disney World and Universal Studios means that there’s a whole mess of hotels just a short drive down I-4. Parking garages are plentiful downtown, the Sunrail can get people staying in hotels outside the downtown area right onto Church Street itself, and Orlando is a fairly pleasant place to visit outside of just coming to watch a soccer game.

It also doesn’t hurt that Camping World Stadium was also renovated back in 2014, with the lower bowl being completely redone and making it a much more pleasant place to come take in a game. The city has also done a good job hosting several big ticket events at the same time. I have a vivid memory of attending an Orlando City game against the Philadelphia Union back on Sept. 1, 2018, when Alabama was kicking off the college football season right down the street against Louisville in Camping World Stadium. Sure, it was more crowded than usual, but I had no trouble finding a place to park or navigating the area around the stadium.

There’s another wrinkle to consider too, and that’s that in such a large country, FIFA might favor regionalization — choosing a couple of cities that are close-ish to each other so fans don’t have to travel great distances to see games. That’s why it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising to see both Dallas and Houston be chosen as hosts, and why even though Miami is a likely host city, Orlando shouldn’t count itself out. Plus, with Brightline finishing up its stop in Orlando later this year, it’ll be even easier to get between the two cities.

All of those things work in favor of the City Beautiful but it doesn’t hurt to be a city that clearly enjoys its soccer. Orlando hosted a World Cup qualifier back in 2017 and a Concacaf Nations League match in 2019. The qualifier took place in front of a sold-out, raucous crowd and while the Nations League attendance was a bit more...modest, it was a midweek game in a tournament that had just been created so it might get a little slack cut for it.

That won’t be the case for the game in March though, especially with the game on a Sunday. For the last home qualifier until after the 2026 tournament, and the last one under the current format, anything less than a sellout will be a disappointment. And while a lackluster crowd probably wouldn’t completely derail all the good things the city has going for it, it won’t hurt to have a loud, rowdy sell-out to leave one last good impression on the people making the decisions for 2026. Time to seize the chance with both hands.