How International Soccer Games At Empower Field Could Boost Denver’s World Cup Hosting Bid

APTOPIX CONCACAF Mexico United States Soccer
Jack Dempsey/AP
The United States celebrates a 3-2 win against Mexico in extra time in the CONCACAF Nations League championship soccer match, Sunday, June 6, 2021, at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver.

Sunday’s dramatic win over Mexico in the CONCACAF Nations League Final was huge for the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team and its supporters. A bigger victory could be coming for the host city, though, when FIFA officials choose hosts for the 2026 Men’s World Cup.

The 2026 World Cup — soccer’s most prestigious competition — will be jointly hosted by 16 cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico. Of America’s 17 candidates, only 10 will make the final list. Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High is one of them.

The Nations League semi-finals, third place game and final were moved to Empower Field from Texas in late April, due to coronavirus complications. For many Coloradans, the weekend was a chance to show FIFA why Denver is the right stage for the international competition.

“I think this game was really important for us to show how big the fan base is. You can't just look at a Rapids game and say, ‘That's the entire fan base,’” said Robert Wilson, president of American Outlaws Denver, U.S. Soccer’s official supporters group. “There's a lot more people here that will go up, especially for a game here at Mile High, downtown.”

Both USMNT games at Mile High were sold out, though there was still limited capacity due to the pandemic. Sunday’s third-place game between Honduras and Costa Rica sold out, as did Thursday’s semi-final between Mexico and Costa Rica.

American Outlaws Denver’s Hallie Guardo said those games needed to go well, too, because there’s no guarantee the USMNT will even play in Denver if it’s chosen as a host city. She said fans of the sport needed to prove they’ll turn up for any World Cup game, regardless of the teams playing.  

“We've got a lot of different cultures represented that would turn out for any team that's playing,” she said. 

American Outlaws national board member Donald Wine flew in from Washington D.C. to watch the Nations League final. He said he’s been impressed with Denver whenever international play comes to the city and that he wouldn’t be surprised if FIFA chooses Mile High as a venue. 

“I think they actually have a good chance. Denver has always been a great city, and has always been a great host for different matches,” he said. “They've done Gold Cup. They've done Nations League, obviously they've done men's national team, women's national team. They've had the Mexico national team play here for friendlies. So I wouldn't count Denver out at all.”

If chosen, Denver could attract fans from bordering states that don’t have any candidate cities. Ana Alvarez came up from New Mexico, which has never hosted a U.S. international game, to watch Mexico play this weekend.

“I’m super excited 'cause we’re so close and we’ve been here for previous games,” she said. “It's like my dream to go to the World Cup and it's going to happen soon.”

It’s not yet clear who will play in the 2026 World Cup, since the 2022 World Cup qualifiers haven’t even finished. But 2026 will see a format change, where the tournament will expand to 48 teams. That means national teams that have missed out on tournaments of past, like Chile, Ireland and Ivory Coast, all have a larger chance of qualifying. 

FIFA officials plan to announce the World Cup host cities later this year. Stadiums such as Dallas’ AT&T Stadium and Los Angeles’ Rose Bowl are among the U.S. candidates. Toronto and Mexico City have nominated BMO Field and Estadio Azteca, respectively.

If Denver is chosen as a host, it will be the city’s first appearance in a World Cup. The U.S. has hosted the tournament three times: once for the men’s in 1994, and twice for the women’s in 1999 and 2003.

CPR’s John Daley contributed to this report.