World Cup

Chris Canetti on Houston's potential legacy as 2026 World Cup host city

Lizzy Becherano
Former president of the Houston Dynamo Chris Canetti now leads the city's World Cup bid committee
Former president of the Houston Dynamo Chris Canetti now leads the city's World Cup bid committee / Bob Levey/GettyImages

Chris Canetti wants to bring the World Cup to Houston. 

The former president of the Houston Dynamo is now the leader of the city’s 2026 World Cup bid committee, working to create an everlasting impact. 

Beyond the infrastructure and capabilities of the Texan city, Canetti admitted “we’re bringing things to the table that only Houston can do to help advance the game. We’re building a legacy.” 

Almost three years after forming the committee, Canetti is months away from finding out Houston’s fate.

How did you first get involved with the sport, before going on to become the president of Houston’s World Cup bid committee?

It all started when I got recruited for a job in soccer in New York City with the former Metro Stars, which is now the Red Bulls. I didn't know too much about soccer, but I went on the interview for whatever reason and I was sold the vision on where the club was going in New York and where the league was going.

After a few months of back and forth, I was offered a job as the senior director of marketing for the Metro Stars. Literally the first professional soccer match I ever saw was my first day on the job there, and I immediately connected with the game. 

MLS was only five years old or so at that time, but I really fell in love with the club, fell in love with the job, the league and where it was going.

Over time, I climbed the ladder there to become assistant general manager and work alongside Alexi Lalas. He allowed me to be around him and learn about the technical side of the business I was in. That was really my intro to the technical side of the business being around him. Eventually the team was sold to the Red Bulls and we we’re all let go. 

I think I had a pretty good reputation in Major League Soccer at that time, so I was asked to help out with the launching of the new Houston MLS project. 

I was offered the role of Chief Operating Officer down in Houston, and I took it. I came down here in 2006, and we had tremendous success.

A couple of years later, I was elevated to become club president and we opened a soccer stadium here in Houston. We opened a training site, and started a women's team. We were going to MLS Cup finals. Everything was clicking. I ended up being with the Dynamo for 13 years, which is a long time. 

Until three years ago, I started this role as president of the Houston World Cup Bid Committee. After 13 years with the Dynamo, it was time to transition onto something else and I became president of the Houston World Cup Bid Committee.

I was approached by the city and the county to lead these efforts, so it was a pretty natural transition. I've been doing this for three years and hopefully we're headed to the finish line here now in the next few months or so. 

What has been the most surprising aspect of your job in the last three years? 

That's a tough one. I'm not going to say it's necessarily surprising, but what's been awesome is that this city really wants to host the World Cup badly and everywhere I go, the doors have been wide open and the support level has been tremendous.

Again, I'm not going to sit here and say that was a surprise or a shock, but it has been. A lot of times you're in roles where you feel like you're fighting a battle all the time to get a win, and as it pertains to the support of this community, but everybody is getting behind us and really wanting this thing to happen. It's been so big and it's so important and so significant. It's fun to not always be fighting an uphill battle. 

And the reason why I say that is, while I love my time in MLS and it was amazing the 19 years to go through that growth spurt, it was always a fight, right? Every day you're grinding and battling to sell that next ticket, to sell that next sponsorship, to get that next article written about, you know, about your club. So it was a pleasant transition to be a part of something just so importantly relevant to a community.

And on the other hand, you're competing with 16 other cities. What has been the most difficult aspect?

Yeah, we are one of 17 cities, so we're competing with 16 others. I think what's difficult is a couple of things. Number one, every city can make a great case for itself. We have a lot of great places in this country with a lot of great resources, assets and things in place that gives every city an argument as to why they should be one of the final 10. And Houston is no different. 

We like to think that we're near the top of that list in terms of the total package for being able to be a great host city. But you know, it's just been a challenge knowing that the competition is so stiff and there's no guarantees for anybody anywhere. 

But even like I said, while we like our chances and we are strong believers in ourselves, we know that we can't rest on any laurels or any confidence.

We just have to keep fighting every day. So even to this stage, with probably months to go in this process, we continue to put our nose to the grindstone and go to work to make sure that we can see this thing through and win a bit.

What does the timeline look like between pitching the idea and getting chosen as one of the host cities?

So, I came on board in January of 2019, and at that time we thought it was going to be about an 18 month process. We thought I was going to start in January, and sometime in mid 2020 there was going to be an answer. So we went off with that mindset. 

In 2020, we built an organization and put in place a legal business entity. We had to build a board of directors, and raise the funds to cover the expense of it. There was a lot of the nuts and bolts kind of groundwork like that.

Then once we kind of put all that together, we got into building our strategic plan by working with multiple consultants to try to figure out what Houston could do to differentiate itself from the competition. 

It was a new process for me because when you work for a club, you don't have months upon months, upon months to plan.

You're in this cyclical environment where you're looking forward to the next match and then the next thing. So we embarked on a very thorough, intense, community-wide effort to build our strategy that was going to help us win it for Houston.

So we came into 2020 thinking, all right, we're setting out right. We are ready for whatever is coming from FIFA to respond and to put ourselves forward. Then of course, COVID hit, so things slowed down quite a bit. I don't want to say we weren't doing anything, but mostly everything was being done virtually even or FIFA was sending us assignments. 

Perhaps it was about our stadium or our training complex or human rights or whatever it might be. We were constantly responding via distance and issuing reports as needed to FIFA.

That made up most of 2020.  And then, as 2021 rolled around, we thought it was the moment to get an answer. We were prepared for that.  But it took a while before the momentum got going with COVID. 

Finally, we had our site visit back in October, which was a big day to prepare for.. Honestly, that kind of brings us to today, where we're now near the end. There's going to be something else I feel that takes place as part of this process, however, I don't know exactly what that is. So any day now, we could get the memo or the call from FIFA saying, here's what we need to do. 

Between now and the end as part of the final evaluation, that's really been how it's gone over the last three years.

With no specific date in mind from FIFA, how do you anticipate the end will look like?

There hasn't been an official memo circulated or anything like that that says on such and such a date, you're going to get the answer. But what we're hearing through our intel and signals that we're receiving is that an answer is hopefully coming around April 1, give or take a few weeks on either side. 

I do believe there's a FIFA Council in March, which could be a moment where maybe they're meeting and gathering there to make a final decision and then notifying the city. There could be two and a half months or so left in this multi-year process at this point. 

Over the course of these years, minus the COVID year, there's been lots of major international soccer games in Houston. Whether they be at BBVA Stadium, home of the Dynamo, or at NRG Stadium, home of the Texans.

Any time one of those games came through the market it was an opportunity for us as a city to put our foot forward in a different way.

So we were always reacting and capitalizing on moments when soccer was at its height in our city or when soccer came to us because people were selecting our city as the place they wanted to hold their event. So every time that happened, our committee was somehow involved in that and used it as a way to push our story forward. 

With all that said, to you specifically, why Houston?

First and foremost, when we set out to host this World Cup bid a few years ago, our vision was to bring the World Cup here to help make Houston a better place. The city is among the most diverse international cities in North America, so it's a great fit. But why Houston? There's a couple of things.

We've got a great track record. The city has hosted Super Bowls, Final Fours, major international soccer friendlies, those kinds of things. The infrastructure and facilities are there. 

But beyond that, we’re also bringing things to the table that only Houston can do to help advance the game. We’re building a legacy. 

We've been very thoughtful in how we were going to capitalize on having this event in our city to help make Houston a better place, so we created a strategic plan based around growing the game, defending human rights and protecting the environment.

We've actually gone and set up a non-profit organization called the Soccer Innovation Institute. And that institute is going to be the caretaker of those pillars of growing the game and defending human rights and protecting the environment.

We're also going to be having think tanks and panels of experts on, for example, how we can have the most sustainable World Cup in Houston, or perhaps even how we can create energy efficient stadiums around the world.

We might, for example, through our institute, bring together a team of leaders from the medical center, the largest one in the world, to talk about how we can reduce or minimize head injuries in soccer.

We might bring together all these leaders from the energy Fortune 500 energy companies and talk about how we can make energy efficient stadiums around the world and build a footprint, especially in our region of CONCACAF.

Innovation will be a big piece in our bid. 

Houston is an innovative city: we created the first dome stadium, we invented the artificial heart. we’re home to NASA. We put a man on the moon. This whole strategy that we've put together is built around legacy, which is a real point of differentiation. 

We think it shows what we're calling: the Spirit of Houston.