After the excitement over the announcement of the host cities for the 2026 World Cup, the next question was: how will this all work?
Don’t worry, we have you.
[ MORE: Which cities will host 2026 World Cup games? ]
With the tournament expanded to 48 teams for the first time in history for the 2026 World Cup, the current group stage format and knockout stage format will change. With 11 cities in the United States, three in Mexico and two in Canada hosting games, there’s a lot of logistics to figure out between now and June 2026, when it all kicks off.
Below is everything you need to know about the World Cup format, qualification and how it will all work.
2026 World Cup format
Alright, here’s how it will all work as the Men’s World Cup transitions from a 32-team tournament to a 48-team competition.
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- The 48 qualified teams will be divided into 16 groups of three
- Each team will play two group stage matches (minus one out of three)
- The 1st and 2nd places of each group for the 16th finals
- An additional knockout round, the Round of 16, will be created
- The Round of 16 will then continue from the Round of 16 at the previous World Cup
2026 World Cup qualifying
It is expected that as hosts USA, Canada and Mexico will all automatically qualify for the 2026 World Cup. But this has not been confirmed.
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FIFA has confirmed how the new qualification process will work, with the following formula being voted on at its 67th FIFA Congress:
UEFA = 16 teams will qualify
CAF = 9.5 (0.5 represents a playoff team)
CFA = 8.5
CONMBEOL = 6.5
CONCACAF = 6.5
OFC = 1.5
A six-team playoff tournament will be held in the United States, Mexico and Canada to determine the final two teams to reach the World Cup. The two playoff teams with the highest FIFA World Ranking will be seeded, while the other four will play a semi-final to decide who will reach the final to face the two seeded teams.
A play-off team will come from each of the confederations (except UEFA) and there will be an additional team from the CONCACAF region to make up the six teams.
How will FIFA base the group stage, round of 16?
This is something that will be truly intriguing in the years to come as FIFA plan the logistics of where to stage the group stage matches, the round of 16 and where the national teams will be based.
We know one thing: FIFA will host 80 matches at the tournament, including 60 matches in the United States, 10 in Mexico and 10 in Canada. This has already been confirmed.
In all my discussions with those involved in the host city bid process over the past few years, one thing has come out: FIFA wants regional groups of cities so that matches can be staged in different cities but with very little travel for fans and teams.
With that in mind, putting a World Cup group in sister cities would work great, and then keeping those teams in a certain region of the United States, Mexico and Canada for the early rounds of the Round of 16 would also make sense.
For example: Groups A and B will be based on the West Coast for the Group Stage, plus Round of 16 and Round of 16, while Groups C and D will be based on the East Coast for the Group Stage, plus Round of 16 and Round of 16, etc.
As for how this will all work out, I tried to predict which cities could be twinned to host games in 2026:
Vancouver + Seattle
San Francisco + LA
Mexico + Guadalajara
Kansas City + Dallas
Atlanta + Miami
Boston + Toronto
Philadelphia + New York
Which city will host the 2026 World Cup final?
It looks like three locations across the United States are the favorites: Los Angeles, Dallas and New York City/NJ.
The latter seems to be the favorite as things stand, especially as FIFA have chosen NYC to unveil the 16 host cities for the 2026 World Cup.
Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium has hosted two World Cup finals in the past and despite its iconic status in world football, expect the final to be held in the United States.