After the USA represented the region at last year's inaugural FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Brazil, 2006 will see the first-ever CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship to decide who reaches Rio from a collection of the New World's five best practitioners of the beach soccer arts and sciences.
The competition will take place in Costa Rica's picturesque Punta Leona in Puntarenas from 13 to 17 September. Along with regional bragging rights on the line, the winner and runner-up from the competition will book their places in November's second FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Rio de Janeiro .
Battling out will be Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico and the USA, all of whom will compete in a round-robin format over five 'double-header' matchdays.
US count on experience
The USA will be up there among the favourites as their creditable performance in Rio last year - where they stretched eventual semi-finalists Japan in a tense match - is sure to stand them in good stead. Furthermore, before the global beach competition became affiliated to FIFA, the US managed to finish second and third respectively in 1995 and 1997.
In addition to history, the Americans also have in their favour a team of quick and clever players led by the stylish and technically excellent Francis Farberoff in defence and the likes of Ronald Silva and former MLS standout Zak Ibsen closer to the goal. Led by Brazilian-born coach Roberto Ceciliano, the Americans are tipped by many to reach their second consecutive global finals this November. The coach's philosophy is simple and has paid dividends in recent years: "I put my life into looking for good kids to put them in the sand and teach them how to be good beach soccer players."
Hosts Costa Rica, though, will not be so keen to let the Americans run away with the prize in their own backyard. Known as one of the most-talented sides in CONCACAF, the Ticos have undergone a rapid rise in the regional ranks over the last several years and, as the only Central American side at the CONCACAF championship, will be desperate to fly the UNCAF flag with pride.
One of only four nations to compete at every regional qualifying tournament, the Costa Ricans, led by coach Edson Soto, will be brimming with the confidence, and the backing of boisterous home crowds should also help the local boys' cause.
Though Hans Morales is the youngest member of the squad, he will be expected to put his brilliant ball skills to work in a well-drilled and highly-motivated side.
Also in the running are North American hopefuls Canada. Led by coach and former Canadian Olympic and NASL standout Ross Ongaro, the Canucks - who lost out for a spot at last year's finals in Brazil during the 2005 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup qualifiers - will be keen to set the record straight.
Ongaro, who was announced as Canada's first-ever national beach soccer coach in December 2005, is confident his side can make a mark on the proceedings and book a place in Rio. "I am optimistic that we can secure a place in the World Championships in November," he said in the build-up to the Costa Rican showdown.
Considering the shining, white-sand beaches that bless the island nation of Jamaica, the Reggae Boyz must be considered dangerous dark horses ahead of the tournament. When one takes into account the national penchant for producing stylish and individually creative footballers, their chances look even better. Led by coach Anthony George Williams and star performers Derrick Planter and Ryan Powell, Jamaica kick off their campaign against the hosts on 13 September.
Mexico are the fifth and final squad and, considering their prowess in all other forms of football in the region, they will surely be a side to watch out for. Ramon Raya's men lost all three of their games during qualifying for last year's World Cup and will be desperate to make amends for that flop when action kicks off in Puntarenas. With a talent like Ramon Villa roaming up front, only a fool would dare write them off.
The top two finishers from the five-team group will book spots at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Rio this November, where they will join the 11 already-qualified nations in a field which will eventually comprise 16 participating countries.
CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship
Canada v USA
Costa Rica v Jamaica
USA v Jamaica
Mexico v Canada
Jamaica v Canada
Costa Rica v Mexico
USA v Mexico
Costa Rica v Canada
Mexico v Jamaica
Costa Rica v USA