ATLANTA — After being slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the race among 17 cities in the United States to land a coveted spot as a host of the 2026 World Cup is back on.
Two FIFA inspectors were in Atlanta on Friday to get a look at 72,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of a record-setting Major League Soccer team and the centerpiece of a bid to bring soccer's international competition to Georgia's capital city.
FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani, who also leads regional governing body CONCACAF, joked that Atlanta is now "a football city, as in the real football that is played globally."
Atlanta is counting on its retractable-roof stadium — which opened in 2017 as the home of both MLS and the NFL's Atlanta Falcons — and its history of staging everything from the 1996 Summer Olympics to a pair of Super Bowls to help it land what is arguably the biggest worldwide spectacle of them all.
Montagliani and Colin Smith, FIFA's chief tournament and events officer, already visited Boston and Nashville. Over the next week, they're planning stops in Baltimore, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Orlando, Florida. In the next two months, FIFA will compete its site visits to the remaining U.S. finalists: Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Kansas City, Missouri.
The United States won hosting rights along with Mexico and Canada in what will be the first World Cup staged in three nations. The site visits were delayed by the pandemic, pushing back a final decision on the host cities to early 2022.
There's not much venue suspense in the neighboring countries.
Mexico put up three cities — Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey — that are all expected to host. Canada had also submitted three cities, but Montreal dropped out recently after the provincial government declined to pick up the rising costs. That left Edmonton and Toronto as that country's sites.
It's not known how many U.S. cities will be selected. The general consensus was 10 before Montreal withdrew, which could create an opening for an 11th pick.
"There is never a stipulation of exactly how many we're going to have in each country," Montagliani said. "At the end of the day, we're going to make the best decision for the World Cup itself, whatever that number may be."
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is one several U.S. candidates that will require the artificial turf to be replaced with a grass surface for the duration of the World Cup. Smith said that won't be a problem.
"There's a lot technology that exists these days," he said. "We just have to get it right."
Atlanta hopes to benefit from the compact footprint around Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Unlike prospective cites such as Boston, Dallas, San Francisco and Washington, which have suburban stadiums, Mercedes-Benz is just a couple of blocks from downtown and part of a complex that also includes Centennial Olympic Park, State Farm Arena — home of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks — and the massive Georgia World Congress Center.
"It just creates an atmosphere," said Darren Eales, president of MLS club Atlanta United FC, which was part of the city's delegation Friday. "I think the most memorable World Cups in the past have been in those cities where you have that stadium downtown."
Taking a jab at competitors such as Boston and Dallas, Eales added: "You're in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing going on around those sites."
A fan festival would likely be staged in Centennial Olympic Park, while the convention center — one of the world's largest — is being pitched as the venue for an international broadcast center that would serve media from around the world.
One potential stumbling block: a new Georgia voting law that opponents have decried as overly restrictive and discriminatory toward people of color. In a stunning move, Major League Baseball pulled this year's All-Star Game out of suburban Atlanta's Truist Park after the measure was approved.
Like their counterparts at the International Olympic Committee, FIFA officials have never seemed too concerned about the politics of a host city or country.
Eales shrugged off the issue with a nervous laugh, saying that "if FIFA makes that decision looking at the overall package of what Atlanta brings relative to the other cities, I'm pretty hopeful that Atlanta will be selected."
Atlanta United has drawn plenty of attention for its record-setting crowds since debuting in 2017.
The club, which won the MLS Cup championship in its second season, holds nearly every attendance record in the league, including season average (53,002) as well as the numerous individual crowds of more than 70,000. International friendlies have also drawn well in Atlanta.
"It's sort of the cherry on top of the cake," Eales said. "This is without a doubt one of the top cities for soccer in North America."