From left, then-Canadian Soccer Association President Victor Montagliani, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati,and Mexican Football Federation President Decio de Maria, shown in April. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

TORONTO — The World Cup, by and large, is played in major metropolitan areas, but even though most big U.S. cities are part of the North American effort to stage the 2026 soccer tournament, bid leaders say they are bullish on playing in secondary markets.

Such talk raises the hopes for places such as Baltimore, Kansas City and Nashville.

“Is it natural to think that places like Los Angeles and New York have an edge? The answer is, of course,” said Sunil Gulati, outgoing president of the U.S. Soccer Federation who chairs the United Bid Committee’s board of directors. “But after two or three or four of those big cities, then it’s wide open.”

At a news conference Saturday to provide updates on the joint bid being formulated by Canada, Mexico and the United States, Gulati and executive director John Kristick offered hope to the smaller markets among the 32 cities seeking to host matches.

“There are always a few surprise cities that are going to break into it,” Kristick said. “That’s one of my biggest goals, is to ensure we give the opportunity to some of these growing cities to host the World Cup. It might be easy for some to do the first five or six, but then we you get to the next five or six and a few below that, you are going to say, ‘What about this one or what about that one?’ ”

FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, has not specified the number of venues, but the United Bid Committee is expecting 15 to 18 across the three countries. The final decision on the host cities would not come until 2021, should the North American bid beat out Morocco.

The two bids must submit paperwork by mid-March. FIFA will conduct inspection tours this spring and vote June 13.

FIFA has never staged a World Cup in three countries — Japan and South Korea shared in 2002 — but with the tournament expanding to 48 teams from 32 starting in 2026, multinational bids are probably going to become more common. With an array of stadium options and economic muscle, the North American bid is a heavy favorite to win hosting rights.

At the moment, the United Bid Committee seems likely to include all 32 cities in the initial bid, a decision that would demonstrate the power of the effort. Mexico is proposing three cities (Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara) for the 10 matches it would host, and will probably have all three selected. Canada has four candidates (Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver) for 10 matches, but will probably have to settle for two or three cities.

The United States would host 60 of the 80 matches, and accordingly, has 25 cities in the running. Bid officials emphasized that cities aren’t vying just for the games but training sites and other ancillary tournament needs.

The front-runners, featuring large and modern stadiums, include the metro areas of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. As the capital city, Washington would be a natural choice, but if FedEx Field (or a new Redskins stadium) doesn’t meet the needs of the organizing committee and FIFA, Baltimore could rise in status.

If Mexico and Canada each have three venues, the United States will probably use about 12.

“There isn’t a city in our bid that isn’t capable to host a World Cup,” Kristick said. “There are no shoo-ins right now from where we sit.”

Said Gulati: “From a U.S. perspective and a Canadian perspective, we are still trying to build the game, trying to take the game to a national level, so we’d like to see more cities involved.”

Smaller cities have featured in recent World Cups: Rustenburg, South Africa (106,000) in 2010, Natal, Brazil (800,000) in 2014 and Saransk, Russia (300,000) next summer.

Meantime, the representatives of the bidding countries discussed the decision giving the United States 75 percent of the matches.

Said Canada’s Steven Reed: “The joint bid is much more compelling than if any one country tried to do it on their own. The fact we’re getting 10 out of the 80 is exciting for Canadians across the country. The reality is, we would’ve been hard-pressed to go it alone.”

Mexico’s Decio de Maria said he has felt the backlash of securing only 10 matches in his soccer-made country.

With a grin, he said “I’ve had a lot of fun” since the bid was unveiled last spring in New York.

“They are going to find people in the streets saying bad words to me, saying, ‘Why 10?’ But there are going to be 95 percent saying, ‘Thanks, we have a third World Cup in Mexico.’ … But the number 10 is going to follow me for the rest of my life.”

From an economic standpoint, he added: “We are not going to start building stadiums just because we have a part in 2026. The money that will come from society is best spent on other things than building stadiums. I am very okay with the decision.”

The reality, of course, is that the United States, with its stadiums and infrastructure, was in a position of power to dictate the match breakdown.

Gulati shared a story from the process: The owners of Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, which hosted the World Cup final is 1970 and ’86, demanded the opening game in 2026. At this early stage, Gulati couldn’t guarantee that (although it does seem likely the opener will end up at famed Azteca).

Sarcastically, Gulati told the Mexico group, “We’ll pull out, you and Canada do it. But you can’t use American airspace during the event.”

On a serious note, all three countries seem to be on the same page in the bid effort.

Di Maria referred to Canada and the United States as “our brothers.”

Added Gulati: “We’ve always had a very special relationship with these two federations. The message that this hopefully sends about relationships and international relationships is extraordinarily important.”

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