Does the USMNT have to earn a spot in the 2026 World Cup? FIFA tournament rules and format in the USA, Mexico, and Canada

More details about the tournament's format are slowly becoming available as the United States, Canada, and Mexico prepare to jointly host it in 2026 as the United Bid.

Despite the fact that the World Cup in 2026 is four years away, excitement is already building.

More details about the tournament's format are slowly becoming available as the United States, Canada, and Mexico prepare to jointly host it in 2026 as the United Bid.

In addition to being the first World Cup to be jointly held since South Korea and Japan hosted it in 2002, it will also be the first time the tournament's field will be expanded to 48 nations. As a result, FIFA will need to make a lot of logistical decisions over the next four years.

The process for determining to qualify will be one of those decisions. Although additional qualification berths have been given to other confederations, FIFA has not yet stated whether the tournament hosts will automatically qualify. Here is what we currently know.

Are the United States, Canada, and Mexico guaranteed spots in the 2026 World Cup?

At this time, FIFA has made no formal decisions or announcements regarding the host nations' qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.

Prior to the decision of the United bid approval, FIFA provided an update in May 2017 that stated that while a single host nation will automatically qualify for the World Cup, a plan of action would be developed at a later date for multiple hosts.

The update said that the host nation will also automatically qualify for the FIFA World Cup and that its spot would be filled from its confederation's quota. "In the event of co-hosting, the FIFA Council would determine the number of host countries to qualify automatically."

The three hosts — the United States, Canada, and Mexico — are still expected to be announced as automatic qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup. In fact, FIFA was informed as much in the official 2026 United proposal packet that was filed to ratify the tri-national candidacy for the competition.

Since the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930, the host nation has had an automatic qualification. Even in 2002, the only other World Cup that was co-hosted by multiple countries, South Korea and Japan both received automatic bids to the competition. Given the tournament's past, it would be astonishing if FIFA did not ultimately decide to name the United States, Canada, and Mexico as the tournament's initial three official competitors.

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

There is no guarantee that the host country will truly receive automatic qualifying until FIFA formally verifies it. FIFA was contacted by The Sporting News for clarification regarding the timing of this decision, but thus far no response has been received.

Allotment of Spots for the 2026 World Cup Qualifying Round

FIFA announced which confederations would receive additional spots in the 2026 World Cup in May 2017.

The confederations with the most slots are those from Africa, which is awarded four guaranteed spots as well as a spot in the intercontinental playoff. Asia takes up the next four positions. North America and the European Union both get three more, while South America gets three more. Oceania, on the other hand, gets one.

The locations for the 2022 World Cup as they have existed since 1998 and the new enlargement for the 2026 World Cup are contrasted here.

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

*As the host of the 2026 intercontinental playoffs, CONCACAF gains a spot.

Additionally, the intercontinental playoff field has increased from four to six teams. As shown by the "half places" in the table above, five of the teams will be rigidly defined from tournament to tournament, and the sixth team will come from an additional slot given to the host confederation (in 2026, that is CONCACAF).

The top two FIFA ranked teams in the six intercontinental playoff teams will receive byes, while the other four teams will play in a preliminary round.

A single host would automatically qualify for the tournament and have its allocation deducted from that confederation's allocation, according to the May 2017 update. However, because the rules governing multiple host qualification are unclear, it is unclear which, if any, of the 2026 World Cup hosts would earn automatic qualification for the competition and whether their spots would diverge from CONCACAF's six automatic spots.

The idea is that the three hosts will automatically qualify and, like a single host, their places will contribute toward CONCACAF's six guaranteed slots because they are three of the strongest teams in CONCACAF and are likely to qualify anyhow.

What will the expanded World Cup look like in 2026?

FIFA has already set forth the plan for the tournament's structure because this will be the first World Cup with 48 players.

Currently, there are eight groups of four teams each in a 32-team structure, similar to the one that will be used in Qatar for the 2022 edition. The top two finishers in each group advance to a knockout stage with 16 teams that uses a single-elimination bracket format.

The system will need to change for the 2026 World Cup because there will be 48 participating teams. In light of this, FIFA announced that the group stage will be changed to include 16 groups of three teams each. The top two finishers in each group advance to a knockout round that is expanded to 32 teams and is designed like a single-elimination tournament.

The overall number of World Cup matches will rise from 64 in 2022 to 80 in 2026 under the new structure. The maximum number of games a single team may play to reach the finals—two in the group stage and five in the knockout round—remains at seven despite the rise in total matches.

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