NEW YORK (Reuters) - The countdown to World Cup 2026 kicks off in earnest on Thursday, as soccer fans across Canada, Mexico and the United States learn whether their cities made the coveted cut to host the 48-team tournament.
Four years after FIFA selected the tri-country North American bid, world football's governing body will announce the host cities after a lengthy process shrouded in mystery.
With 22 host cities still in the running this week, according to FIFA, many expect the United States to see 10 of its candidates chosen with Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto in contention to the north.
In Mexico, where soccer is less a sport than a religion, three candidate cities - Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey - are all but assured the gig.
Of course, anything can happen ahead of Thursday's media spectacle in New York City.
"Some of the cities understood probably from the beginning they were a longer shot than others ... Five or six cities, almost anybody in the world would say, 'Well, clearly they're part of the package'," former U.S. Soccer President Alan Rothenberg, now chairman of Playfly Premier Partnerships, told Reuters.
"So the scramble in many ways is for the other slots."
Los Angeles, with its glitzy new $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium is widely considered an obvious candidate, as is global hub New York, whose joint bid with New Jersey is anchored on the 82,500-capacity MetLife Stadium.
Other contenders include former 1994 World Cup host cities Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, Orlando and Washington, D.C., which combined its bid with Baltimore this year.
"There's an awful lot of pent up excitement because then we start the four year sprint to the (games)," said Rothenberg, who served as CEO of the 1994 World Cup.
There is a potential financial windfall on the line for bid cities: A 2018 U.S. Soccer study said the tournament could generate more than $5 billion in economic activity for North America.
Also at stake is the pride of taking part in North American soccer history.
The 1994 World Cup preceded an explosion of popularity in the sport across the United States with Major League Soccer (MLS) launching its first season two years later.
"We've all seen so much progress in the growth of soccer over the course of 20 plus years," said Chris Canetti, president of the Houston World Cup bid committee, who previously had a 19-season career in MLS.
"The platform that (hosting) will provide to really take the sport to even much greater heights is incredible and very exciting as well."
Canetti pointed to Houston's size and proximity to Central and South America among its advantages for the global tournament, but added he did not expect any advance notice from FIFA.
"There really hasn't been a lot of direct feedback to help you feel confident to say, 'Oh yeah, we're definitely in'," he said. "I think our chances are very, very strong."
Dan Hilferty, the chair of Philadelphia's bid, said there were plans to build fields not only to host practice facilities for the World Cup but to "create a legacy" in the city, should they be selected.
"I just see this as the final straw in placing soccer among the other top sports," he told Reuters. "And there will be no turning back."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Chris Reese)