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How will 2026 World Cup actually work?

Joe Prince-Wright, Andy Edwards and Nick Mendola discuss what the unique hosting situation for the 2026 World Cup means for soccer in the United States and compare the 11 American host cities and venues.

After the excitement of the 2026 World Cup host cities being announced, the next question has been this: how will this all work?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you.

[ MORE: Which cities will host 2026 World Cup games? ]

With the tournament expanded to 48 teams for the first time in history for the 2026 World Cup, the current group stage format and knockout stage format will change. With 11 cities in the U.S., three in Mexico and two in Canada hosting games, there are plenty of logistics to figure out between now and June 2026 when it all kicks off.

Below is everything you need to know on the World Cup format, qualification and how it will all work.

2026 World Cup format

Okay, here is how it will all work as the men’s World Cup shifts from being a 32-team tournament to a 48-team competition.

[ MORE: World Cup 2022 odds: Favorites, underdogs, group stage winners ]

  • The 48 qualified teams will be split into 16 groups of three

  • Each team will play two group stage games (down one from three)

  • The 1st- and 2nd-place finishers in each group to the round of 32

  • An extra knockout round, the Round of 32, will be created

  • The knockout round will then continue from the Round of 16 a la previous World Cups

2026 World Cup qualification

It is widely expected that as host nations the USA, Canada and Mexico will all automatically qualify for the 2026 World Cup. But that has not been confirmed.

[ MORE: World Cup 2022 rankings: Who are the favorites? ]

FIFA have confirmed how the new qualification process will work, as the following formula was voted in at their 67th FIFA congress:

UEFA = 16 teams will qualify
CAF = 9.5 (.5 represents one playoff team)
AFC = 8.5
OFC = 1.5

A playoff tournament involving six teams will be held in the U.S., Mexico and Canada to decide the final two teams who reach the World Cup. The two playoff teams with the highest FIFA world ranking will be seeded, while the other four will play a semifinal round to decide who reaches the final to play the two seeded teams.

One playoff team will come from each of the confederations (except UEFA) and there will be an extra team from the CONCACAF region to make up the six teams.

How will FIFA base the group stage, knockout rounds?

This is something which will be really intriguing in the years to come as FIFA plan out the logistics of where to hold group stage games, the knockout rounds and where national teams will be based.

We know one thing: FIFA will hold 80 games at the tournament with 60 games in the USA, 10 in Mexico and 10 in Canada. That has already been confirmed.

Throughout all of my chats with those involved in the host city bidding process in recent years one thing has stood out: FIFA wants regional groups of cities so games can be hosted in different cities but with very little travel for fans and teams.

With that in mind, putting a World Cup group in paired cities would work very well and then keeping those teams in a certain region of the U.S., Mexico and Canada for the first few rounds of the knockouts would also make sense.

For example: Groups A and B will be based on the West Coast for the group stage, plus Round of 32 and Round of 16, while Groups C and D will be based on the East Coast for the group stage, plus Round of 32 and Round of 16, and so on and so forth.

As for how that will all work, I’ve had a go at predicting which cities could be paired together to host games in 2026:

Vancouver + Seattle
San Francisco + LA
Mexico City + Guadalajara
Monterrey + Houston
Kansas City + Dallas
Atlanta + Miami
Boston + Toronto
Philadelphia + New York

Which city will host the 2026 World Cup final?

It seems like three locations across the USA are the frontrunners: Los Angeles, Dallas and New York City/NJ.

The latter seems like the favorite as things stand, especially as FIFA chose NYC to unveil the 16 host cities for the 2026 World Cup.

Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium has hosted two World Cup finals in the past and despite its iconic status in world soccer, expect the final to be held in the USA.

Follow @JPW_NBCSports