Good stadium, bad field
Good stadium, bad field Eric Broder Van Dyke / GETTY

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In a non-binding move, Seattle’s City Council voted unanimously on a resolution to try to bring the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup to Seattle as part of the North American joint bid for the event. Even though this is a gesture that won’t have a real impact until no sooner than 2021, when the host cities are chosen, it opens up a bunch of World Cup-related cans of worms that we should suss through now.

Before we get to the worms, there is plenty of good stuff associated with this decision. Seattle is one of the best soccer cities in the country. The passion for the game here is real, and is demonstrated week-in and week-out by the city’s dedication to the Sounders. Nowhere in the U.S. can claim a better atmosphere for soccer matches than Seattle in a stadium big enough to host World Cup matches. And World Cup matches are fun! I’ve been! They’re great! And if we host the World Cup, no amount of choking will keep the American men out of the tournament (the hosts automatically qualify!)

And really, the matches themselves are the least of the issues. While there will be expenses associated with hosting, for cities that aren’t the primary hub for the cup (Rio in 2014, presumably Los Angeles, Atlanta or New York for 2026 if the bid is given to North America) the matches are able to fade into the background of urban life. I attended the World Cup in Sao Paolo in 2014 (a much bigger city than Seattle, but still) and it made an NFL playoff game-sized impact on the city. We’re talking about securing two or three soccer matches, each with the attendance of a Seahawks game. If the World Cup comes to North America, it is not a big deal to be a second-tier host city if you already have the necessary facilities.

This is the first big question for Seattle: does CenturyLink Field qualify as a good enough facility? In terms of seating and amenities the answer is obviously yes. CenturyLink can hold nearly 70,000 fans which is plenty for a preliminary or early knockout match, and the food prep facilities are really good (FIFA often takes control of these for matches though, which could mean generic food at the Din Tai Fung stand… bummer).

The field surface though… yikes. There are both no real worms and many metaphorical worms in the artificial turf of CenturyLink Field. First off, it is nigh impossible to grow grass at CenturyLink due to drainage issues, and the wear and tear the surface takes over the combination of NFL and MLS games and other events (Motocross-Supercross sticks out as a particularly unfriendly event for the grass). Currently the surface is the best Paul Allen’s money (and the taxpayers of the region) can buy: FieldTurf Revolution 360; it was installed in 2016 and represents the best available option for Seattle.

After the 2016 upgrade, the field received a two-star official rating from FIFA; this means technically Seattle’s field in its current state can be used for a FIFA World Cup Final match. But turf still isn’t grass, and a FIFA World Cup Men’s Final has never included a stadium with a non-grass surface before.

This leaves Seattle with three bad options. The first is to do what the Sounders do when they host a big international club, and install temporary grass over the turf. This is the cheapest and most likely move, but it’s also the lowest quality; temporary grass has a nasty habit of injuring players at an even higher rate than turf fields. The second is to, at great expense, try to replace the field surface with real grass for the tournament. This is risky, and would likely put the stadium out of commission for an entire Sounders/Seahawks season, and would be brutally expensive to maintain going forward. Not great! The third option is to just use the turf that FIFA has already said is good enough, and hope that doesn’t disqualify the city from hosting.

There was significant controversy when the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final in Canada was played on turf fields. While studies have shown conflicting results in terms of injury rates on turf versus grass, it’s undeniably true that soccer balls roll differently on artificial surfaces. It’s way harder to weight a pass properly, and for the top players in the world that completely changes how they have to approach a match. Still, spending a bunch of public money to install grass field all over Canada, only to rip them up after the Cup (maintaining grass fields in Canada is as hard as it is in Seattle) was untenable for the hosts. Turf was probably the right call for Canada once they were chosen as the host nation. The big issue though was equality: the women rightly contended that FIFA would never allow the equivalent conditions for the men’s tournament.

Well, it’s time for some gender parity. If North America is given the World Cup, Seattle should be a host city. And if Seattle is made a host city, the matches should be played on turf.

However should North America even want the World Cup? Councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, though she supported the resolution, raised the issue of FIFA’s past business practices, which are abhorrent. The current preparations for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar qualify as a human rights catastrophe, and past countries have been extorted out of the profits for the games while stadiums have fallen into disrepair.

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This is before getting into whether the World Cup would be designated a National Special Security Event, forcing local police to cooperate fully with federal law-enforcement in the run-up to the event. Seattle is a sanctuary city; putting an event on the docket that would force the city’s police to work with federal law enforcement officials could run directly counter to the city’s goal of protecting immigrants within its borders.

Also, should FIFA be giving the event to North America at all? This is a strange moment to build a global event that involves big groups of people from around the world traveling within the United States and between the U.S. and Mexico. Given our current president’s terrible policies, an argument can be made that we don’t deserve the World Cup. 2026 is a long way off; our country’s policies towards immigrants and our neighbors to the south could well change for the better. They could also harden, making the event a nightmare.

So yeah, lots of worms! But also, lots to get excited about… potentially, if a bunch of governments and notoriously corrupt organizations can make a bunch of good decisions in a row… we shall see.

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