Does USMNT have to qualify for 2026 World Cup? Rules, format for FIFA tournament in USA, Mexico, Canada

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The 2026 World Cup is still four years away, but the anticipation is already growing.

With the United States, Canada and Mexico set to jointly host the 2026 tournament as the United Bid, there's slowly more information trickling out regarding how the tournament will work.

Not only is the 2026 World Cup the first jointly hosted tournament since the 2002 event in South Korea and Japan, but it is also set to feature the first World Cup expansion to 48 teams. As such, there are many logistical determinations for FIFA to make over the next four years.

One of those determinations is how qualification will work. While additional qualification slots have been allocated to various confederations, FIFA has yet to announce whether the host nations will automatically qualify for the tournament. Here's what we know so far.

MORE: Where is the 2026 FIFA World Cup? Breaking down the venues and cities involved in hosting

Do USA, Canada and Mexico qualify automatically for 2026 World Cup?

At this point, nothing regarding qualification of the host nations for the 2026 World Cup has been officially determined or announced by FIFA.

According to an update from FIFA in May of 2017, which came prior to the selection of the United bid approval, FIFA said that while a singular host nation would automatically qualify for the World Cup, a course of action would be determined at a later date for multiple hosts.

"The host country would also automatically qualify for the FIFA World Cup, and its slot would be taken from the quota of its confederation," the update stated. "In the event of co-hosting, the number of host countries to qualify automatically would be decided by the FIFA Council."

Still, there is widespread expectation that all three hosts — the United States, Canada, and Mexico — will be introduced as automatic qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup. So much, in fact, that the official 2026 United bid packet submitted to FIFA to confirm the tri-national bid for the tournament stated as much.

Since the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, the host nation has qualified for the tournament automatically. Even in 2002, the only other World Cup to be jointly hosted by multiple nations, both Japan and South Korea entered the tournament automatically as hosts. Given the history of the tournament, it would be shocking if FIFA did not eventually determine to unveil the United States, Canada, and Mexico as the first three official participants of the 2026 World Cup.

Until FIFA officially confirms the host nations' automatic qualification, it's not certain whether this will actually take place. The Sporting News has reached out to FIFA for more information regarding when this decision will be made, with no response received so far.

MORE: A full breakdown of the expanded 2026 World Cup competition format

Slot allocation for 2026 World Cup qualification

In May of 2017, FIFA confirmed which confederations will get extra places in the 2026 World Cup.

The confederations receiving the most berths are Africa which earns four guaranteed places plus an intercontinental playoff slot. Asia is next, earning four additional places. The European confederation receives three extra, as does North America, while South America earns three. Oceania, meanwhile, earns one.

Below is a comparison of the 2022 World Cup places, as they have been in place since 1998, and the new expansion for the 2026 World Cup.

Confederation2022 Places2026 PlacesChange
CONCACAF3.56.5 (+0.5)*+3
TOTAL31 (+host)48+18

*CONCACAF earns an additional intercontinental playoff spot as 2026 host

The intercontinental playoffs have also been expanded, from four teams to six teams. Five of the teams will be determined rigidly from tournament to tournament as indicated by the "half places" in the table above, with the sixth team coming from an additional slot awarded to the host confederation (in 2026, that is CONCACAF).

The six intercontinental playoff teams will be seeded according to FIFA ranking, with the top two earning a bye and the other four playing in a preliminary round.

According to the May 2017 update, a singular host would automatically qualify for the tournament and have its allocation taken from that confederation's allocation. However, because there is not official clarity on how multiple host qualification would work, we do not officially know which — if any — of the 2026 World Cup hosts would qualify automatically for the tournament and whether their places would take up slots from the CONCACAF allocation of six automatic places.

Due to the fact that the 2026 World Cup hosts are three of the strongest teams in CONCACAF and likely to qualify anyway, the expectation is that the three hosts will automatically qualify and, like a singular host, their places will count toward CONCACAF's six guaranteed slots.

What will be the format of the expanded 2026 World Cup?

As the first World Cup with 48 participants, FIFA has already laid out the format for the tournament's structure.

Currently, in a 32-team format such as that which we will see in Qatar for the 2022 edition, there is a group stage involving eight groups of four teams each. The top two finishers in each group qualify for a 16-team single-elimination bracket-style knockout stage.

In the 2026 World Cup, with 48 teams involved, the format will necessitate change. As such, FIFA confirmed that the group stage will be reworked to feature 16 groups of three teams each. The top two finishers in each group will advance to a widened 32-team single-elimination bracket-style knockout stage.

In the new format, the total number of matches in the World Cup will increase from 64 in 2022 to 80 in 2026. Despite the increase in total matches, the maximum number of games a single team can play if reaching the finals remains at seven, with two in the group stage and five in the knockout stage.

Kyle Bonn is a soccer content producer for The Sporting News.