By Simon Evans
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The United States is considering withdrawing their bid for the 2018 World Cup to focus entirely on securing the tournament in 2022, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said Friday.
The U.S. bid has officially been for either of the dates, with FIFA due to take a decision on December on both 2018 and 2022.
But with strong support for the tournament to return to Europe in 2018, Gulati said it may make sense to target 2022.
"We haven't been asked to withdraw but I acknowledge - and we have really from the beginning - that there is a sentiment within a number of members of the executive committee that 2018 should be in Europe," Gulati told a teleconference.
"If at some time between now and December 2, we think it is in our best interests to do that (withdraw)...then we would make that decision," he said.
The U.S. has been hosting FIFA's inspection group this week, showing officials around stadiums and other facilities in five of the 18 cities that make up their bid.
But Gulati said there was no discussion with those FIFA officials about whether the U.S. would pull out of the running for 2018.
"It didn't come up...as we have said all along, we would certainly listen and have the appropriate conversations with the FIFA president and the UEFA president at the right time," he said.
England, Russia, Portugal/Spain and Belgium/Netherlands are in the mix for 2018 while Qatar, South Korea, Japan and Australia will compete for the 2022 tournament, should the previous edition go to Europe.
China has expressed interest in hosting the World Cup in 2026, a move that some observers see as helping the U.S. for 2022 given that Asian countries would almost certainly not host consecutive tournaments.
Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, who plays in the NBA for the Houston Rockets, was present during Thursday's inspection of facilities in the Texas city and Gulati, while unwilling to discuss the implications of an eventual Chinese bid, was positive about the notion.
"How that plays into decisions that FIFA may make for 2018 or 2022 remains to be seen but I don't think anyone would doubt that China would make a great host in the future for the World Cup - especially after what they did in the Olympic Games and the growth and size of the economy.
"It is a decision for FIFA....I think down the road China has indicated that they would be interested in hosting a World Cup, Yao was there obviously on behalf of the city of Houston," he said.
FIFA officials also visited New York, Washington D.C., Dallas and Miami as part of their visit.
The vote for who will host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments will be on December 2 in Zurich.
The 2014 finals will be held in Brazil.
(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)