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Concerns about FedEx Field complicate Washington’s 2026 World Cup bid

FedEx Field opened only 25 years ago but has recently had several embarrassing episodes. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Washington might have to consolidate its 2026 World Cup venue bid with Baltimore because of concerns about the viability of playing at FedEx Field, a major blow to the city’s efforts of hosting soccer’s marquee event, people familiar with the matter said Wednesday.

As part of a joint regional effort, Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium would become the area’s game venue and the District would stage nongame events, such as large-scale watch parties on the National Mall, said two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to openly discuss the situation.

In the fall, Washington received high marks for its presentation to FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, but FedEx Field, a Landover venue plagued with problems for years, did not, those people said.

The move would be a boon to Baltimore, which, without Washington’s prestige as the nation’s capital, faces long odds of becoming a venue.

It would also be a black eye to the D.C. area, one of America’s most vibrant soccer markets and a venue for the 1994 World Cup (at RFK Stadium) and 1999 and 2003 Women’s World Cups (at FedEx Field and RFK, respectively).

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FIFA is planning to name host cities in the next few months. Aside from 10 or 11 U.S. venues, a handful of locations in Mexico and Canada will make the cut for the first World Cup hosted by three countries.

“As the selection process remains ongoing and is expected to be finalized by Q1/Q2 of this year, FIFA is not in a position to comment on individual candidate host cities,” a FIFA spokesman said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Terry Hasseltine, executive director of the Maryland Sports Commission, which is leading Baltimore’s campaign, said the suggestion of a Baltimore-Washington bid “has been put out there [by fans], but it’s something we are leaving to the international and national governing body to determine what is the best case for the United States.”

He added, “We’ve been very clear from our position — and D.C. has been very clear in their position — that we have two separate entities, and should [organizers] determine otherwise, that is up to them.”

Hasseltine also said neither the U.S. Soccer Federation nor FIFA has suggested a merger at this time.

“There are no changes to our bid,” said Chinyere Hubbard, spokeswoman for EventsDC, which is overseeing Washington’s effort. “We’re still engaged with FIFA and working with our existing partners in pursuit of our DC2026 Bid.”

USSF spokesman Neil Buethe said the domestic governing body did not want to comment on the selection process.

A host nation’s capital city has almost always played a prominent role in the World Cup: Since 1930, all but two have hosted games, and one of the absentees, Tokyo, was within 20 miles of two tournament sites in 2002, when Japan and South Korea shared the event.

M&T Bank Stadium, home to the NFL’s Ravens, is 36 miles from Capitol Hill. Since opening in 1998, it has staged a few international friendlies and two U.S. men’s national team matches as part of the Concacaf Gold Cup.

FedEx Field opened only 25 years ago but has had several embarrassing episodes. During NFL games this season alone, a pipe broke and its contents went into the stands, a sprinkler went off in a suite and a tunnel railing collapsed. Fans have long grumbled about its location and traffic flow.

A FIFA delegation toured Washington in September, and while the overall presentation was well-received, the stadium drew concern, people close to the matter said. Issues included infrastructure and amenities.

Seating capacity has also shrunk, affecting potential ticket revenue for FIFA. It was once the NFL’s largest at more than 91,000, but the Washington Football Team, which owns FedEx Field, removed seats as ticket demand declined the past decade. Other areas are fenced off or covered with tarps, leaving capacity for NFL games at 67,617.

The day after touring Washington, the FIFA group visited Baltimore and attended a Ravens game at the 71,000-seat stadium, which is walking distance from the city’s business district and Inner Harbor.

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The Washington Football Team has been exploring locations to build a new stadium, but it is contractually obligated to play in Landover until after the 2027 season. That means the outlook for a new facility before the World Cup is remote, at best.

RFK Stadium, which opened in 1961, has been decommissioned and is slated for demolition in the near future. Audi Field, D.C. United’s newly constructed home near Nationals Park, can hold 20,000 fans and therefore does not have the seating capacity needed for World Cup matches.

FedEx Field is not the only World Cup candidate under scrutiny. Most of the U.S. stadiums were built with the NFL in mind and, by FIFA’s standards, are too narrow for the organization’s marquee event. They would require alterations in the corners, where angled walls encroach on the proposed field.

NFL fields are 53.3 yards wide — and 120 long, including end zones — while FIFA prefers at least 72 by 115, plus an ample buffer for commercial and security purposes.

M&T Bank Stadium, Hasseltine said, would require “nothing too elaborate” to meet FIFA’s field dimensions. It has a grass field — a FIFA requirement — but would need to install grass where artificial turf is used for withstanding the wear and tear of NFL sidelines.

Several stadiums would need to install grass over the entire surface. (FedEx Field uses grass, although at times it has not held up well.) Those include top candidates such as MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.; Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.; and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.

During the fall tour, Colin Smith, FIFA’s chief tournaments and events officer, said quality stadiums are “absolutely fundamental for us.”

“What we need to do is provide [players] the best playing surfaces and the best facilities in the world,” Smith said.

The other U.S. contenders are Philadelphia, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, Cincinnati, Nashville, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay area and Kansas City, Mo.

Mexico has proposed Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey. Canada was left with Toronto and Edmonton after Montreal withdrew from consideration last year.

The United States is slated to host 60 of the 80 matches and Mexico and Canada 10 apiece in a tournament that will expand in 2026 to 48 teams from 32.