Gold Cup can help SoFi Stadium make case for World Cup final

SoFi Stadium is less than three years old, yet it already has played host to a Super Bowl, a college football title game and WrestleMania. Taylor Swift has booked so many concerts there, she probably could register to vote in Inglewood.

But there’s one prize the stadium could miss: the 2026 World Cup final.

FIFA is expected to announce in September the number of matches that will be played in each of the tournament’s 16 host venues, and although SoFi was once considered a possible site for the championship game, it now appears a long shot behind MetLife Stadium in northern New Jersey and AT&T Stadium in suburban Dallas, which has emerged as the solid favorite.

SoFi has two more chances to win over undecided FIFA officials this month — staging Sunday’s sold-out CONCACAF Gold Cup final between Panama and Mexico and a July 26 friendly between European giants Arsenal and Barcelona.

“Anytime we, as a city and community, have the opportunity to host one of these international tournaments and show people how we do what we do here, it serves us well,” said Larry Freedman, LAFC’s co-president and the co-chair of the Los Angeles World Cup host committee.

“The size of SoFi puts it in the conversation for the biggest and the best sporting events. And when you start thinking bigger, it’s impossible not to gravitate to the biggest, arguably best, most modern facility on the planet.”

The host committee’s hopes were further buoyed in May when FIFA president Gianni Infantino chose Los Angeles to unveil the logo and branding for the 2026 tournament. The $5.5-billion stadium complex — the most expensive in the world — is less than five miles from LAX and has more bells and whistles than a marching band, all matters that appeal to soccer’s global governing body. This month’s games give the stadium an opportunity to be seen by the people who will decide what games are played where in 2026.

“Everything always matters, right?” CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani said. “Every training session, every time you step on the pitch, everything matters. Everything gets put into the sausage and then we’ll make a decision in terms of not just the final, but all the other big matches as well.”

For all of SoFi’s opulence, the facility has its drawbacks too. It’s Matrix Turf playing surface would have to be replaced by a carpet of natural grass and the field, which is too narrow in the corners, would have to be modified to meet FIFA regulations. In addition, the stadium’s capacity — it drew 70,048 for Super Bowl LVI in 2022 — would make it the smallest venue to host a World Cup in two decades.

The announced attendance for the 2011 Super Bowl at AT&T Stadium was 103,219.

Whether any or all of those issues could be remedied is unknown since stadium officials declined to answer questions about SoFi’s World Cup prospects. But Montagliani, who already has seen a Super Bowl in the stadium, believes the venue is up to the challenge.

“Absolutely gorgeous stadium,” he said. “First of all, architecturally it’s fantastic. The crowd, the noise, it’s fantastic. It’s a world-class stadium.”

Then there are the problems that can’t be fixed, such as the difference between the Pacific time zone and Europe. That would require a noon kickoff for the final to avoid a late-night start in Europe.

Placing the game in Texas not only would avoid that, but also allow organizers to hold semifinals on both coasts before meeting in the middle of the country for the final — a bonus in the largest, longest and most complex World Cup in history.

Southern California has hosted the only three World Cup finals played in the U.S. The 1994 championship game and the 1999 women’s final were played at the Rose Bowl, and the last match of the hastily organized 2003 women’s tournament was held at the Home Depot Center, now called Dignity Health Sports Park, in Carson.

“Ultimately we want the final,” Freedman said. “We think we have the best market, the best location, the best building. And we think that’s what should be here. So I think [our] first, second and third choice is the final.

“But at the end of the day, maybe there’s another mix of matches that make great sense.”

South side view of the field at SoFi Stadium.

South side view of the field at SoFi Stadium.

(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

That might mean the group-play opener featuring the U.S. or a package of quarterfinal and semifinal games. The only soccer that has been played in the stadium so far was a doubleheader featuring the Galaxy and LAFC against Mexican clubs Chivas and Club América last summer that drew a sold-out crowd of 71,189. Players and coaches for all four teams complained about the field but raved about the atmosphere.

As for the Gold Cup final, this will be third time since 2005 that Panama has played in the confederation championship game. It lost to the U.S. in two previous tries and advanced this time by beating the U.S. in a tiebreaking penalty-kick shootout in the semifinals.

Because the game ended in a tie, B.J. Callaghan will finish his term as interim manager unbeaten at 4-0-3, with a Nations League title and trip to the Gold Cup semifinals. He has stepped aside for Gregg Berhalter, who last month was re-signed to manage the team through the rest of the World Cup cycle.

After Sunday’s game, the other chance for SoFi to make an impression on FIFA comes 10 days later when Barcelona and Arsenal meet as part of the Soccer Champions Tour, an eight-game, six-team series of summer friendlies.

“SoFi has a great opportunity to show the world what they’re capable of,” said Tom Braun, the Galaxy’s senior vice-president for business and soccer operations, who is part of the group organizing the games. “Hosting international soccer matches certainly helps their candidacy for landing the big matches for the World Cup. It doesn’t hurt for them to show off.”

Braun said he no longer needs to be sold, but then he doesn’t get a vote with FIFA, either.

“When it comes to the stadiums that are that have been chosen for the World Cup in ’26, I don’t think it’s a competition,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s a venue in the mix that that can compete with what SoFi has to offer. It’s a special place.

“And whether it’s the Gold Cup final or the Arsenal-Barcelona match, a lot of key players that will be on that pitch, I have no doubt that they will be raving about the experience that they had there.”