Sam Mellinger

The importance of Kansas City hearing 'yes' about the World Cup

The meaty part of perhaps the most ambitious sports power play in Kansas City history is here. North America won the bid for the 2026 World Cup, so now ours is one of 23 cities competing to be among the 16 match hosts.

It would be the biggest sports event we've ever seen, which creates an uncomfortable new test.

Kansas City calls itself The Soccer Capital of America, and it's a catchy label, but soon we'll know if anyone else takes that seriously.

For a place with a civic inferiority complex but a rising profile in some tangible ways, this is heady stuff.

Local leaders from the world of politics and sports gathered for a news conference at Arrowhead Stadium on Wednesday morning, with Chiefs President Mark Donovan pushing the "iconic" building and Kansas City Mayor Sly James calling the chances of not hosting a match "relatively unlikely."

But the ambition is even bigger than a match. Sporting KC principal owner Cliff Illig is the bid's co-chairman. He couldn't attend the news conference, but when reached by phone he indicated the city soccer facilities and energy — illustrated most tangibly by the Pinnacle National Development Center — puts Kansas City in position to be a much bigger part of the bid than would otherwise be expected from the nation's No. 33 market.

"That will allow us to make a pretty strong case that there ought to be a lot of activity here," Illig said. "When I say activity, I'm not just talking about a game. These teams are going to need a place to train."

Asked to describe his confidence in landing a match, Illig said, "reasonably." But his vision is not just for a match — depending on many factors, Kansas City could play host to up to five games — but for international teams to train and play friendlies here.

Sports have long been a proxy for status, and it's easy to go overboard, but actually landing the goods is more important here than for presumably any other city.

New York is expected to host the final. Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta are up for the semifinals. The rest of the cities have seemingly less to lose than we do. Bigger, more visible markets like Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco figure to have a spot.

Others have an out. Houston may be left out if Dallas lands a match. Baltimore and D.C. probably aren't both going to host, and the same is true of Orlando and Miami. Cincinnati and Nashville haven't put the work and money into soccer that Kansas City has.

Arrowhead would need to be retrofitted for soccer, a process that would cost millions and remove thousands of seats, mostly in the corners and near the field. Officials also considered the bid dead without a new airport terminal.

But beyond that, the leaders who spoke on Wednesday indicated nothing new would be required or expected here. New hotels have already opened, with more on the way. Our location not just in the middle of America but the middle of North America is believed to be attractive.

FIFA scores each city on a variety of categories. As you might expect, Kansas City's highest score was on venues, its lowest on public transportation. The plan calls for dedicated and free shuttles between the airport, Arrowhead and a fan fest on the north lawn of Liberty Memorial.

The final cutdown is expected sometime in 2020, and while a streetcar extension to the Plaza would be a plus, it's not viewed by officials as necessary.

In that way, Kansas City is being judged by what it is, and what it would be with or without the World Cup. There are no stadium renovations required, the way it happened for baseball's 2012 All-Star Game. No vote for a rolling roof, which failed in 2006 and may have landed a Super Bowl.

Kansas City came as it was, and now we wait for two years or so of mostly bureaucratic red tape to find out if that was enough.

"We have the stock, we have the venues, we have the approach," James said. "I think we have everything we need."

We better.

Kansas City has been through many bid processes. Google came. The Republican National Convention and Amazon did not. But the city hasn't been this well-positioned in decades.

More hotels. More transportation. More life and energy and options downtown. More pride, more confidence, more plans.

This particular bid is personal. You can symbolize much of Kansas City's growing profile over the last decade through soccer. A fading and forgotten franchise went from playing on an independent-league baseball field to one of the country's most impressive soccer-specific stadiums, finding success competitively and winning more fans along the way. Pinnacle is widely said to be the best soccer facility in the country, and among the best in the world.

Illig is right. Kansas City deserves more than just a match. Soccer is a place where we can figuratively punch above our weight class. Kansas City will be fine either way, but the ego boost means more here than in most other places.

Hearing yes would potentially mean the grandest sports event in Kansas City history. Hearing no would be a disheartening rejection of decades of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars in progress.

We've heard no more than yes over the years.

Rarely has so much institutional self-esteem been on the line.