The second matchday of the final round of 2010 FIFA World Cup South AfricaTM qualifying in North, Central America and the Caribbean is poised to get heart rates up. After a humbling reverse in the USA last time out, Mexico will be keen to haul themselves off the bottom of the six-team section when high-flying table-toppers Costa Rica come calling at the Azteca. USA, who share top spot with the Ticos, head to El Salvador, while Trinidad and Tobago host a wounded Honduras at their Hasely Crawford Stadium.
The real show-stopper on Saturday's menu comes from Mexico City's famous Estadio Azteca. Only one side has ever beaten El Tri in qualifying at the massive ground, teetering over 7,000 feet up in the smoggy air that surrounds the capital, and that team is Costa Rica. Although the Ticos have only ever beaten Mexico five times in 37 meetings, the Central Americans, led by coach Rodrigo Kenton, are on a smashing run of form. Having won their last seven games with 22 goals scored and only three conceded, Costa Rica hope to repeat their Aztecazo of 2001.
In stark contrast, Sven-Goran Eriksson's Mexicans are suffering from a lack of confidence, results and goals. El Tri - once the undisputed kings of the region - have not won in four consecutive qualifiers, scoring only a pair of goals in the process. Added to these woes, the home side will need to pick up a result without their stalwart captain Rafa Marquez, who is out suspended after a sending off against the Americans. Mexican fans, over 100,000 of which are likely to cram into the Azteca, can take heart from the return Andres Guardado, who missed the USA loss through injury.
"I am not coming here to be the saviour," Guardado said, eager to deflect attention. "I'm only coming here to work hard to support what I have to offer, be it a little or a lot. I know I have a responsibility and I want to play well."
Down in the heart of Central America, Bob Bradley's USA will face a tough test in San Salvador. The Salvadorans roared back from a two-goal deficit to pick up a point against T&T in their opener last month, and will be keen to add to their haul. The Americans, who got two goals out of Michael Bradley in their win over Mexico, know full well that atmosphere, weather and raucous support in steamy Central America can often play a crucial role.
"Away games in the CONCACAF region often take place in stadiums which aren't exactly the greatest, on a less than perfect pitch, and the weather's sometimes a problem too," Bradley told FIFA.com, knowing the US have only once lost to El Salvador in 18 tries. "A lot of different factors can have an impact."
Team-mate Frankie Hejduk, whose hard graft on the flank made all the difference last time out, is in full agreement. "They do everything they can to get an advantage down there [in Central America]," the 34-year-old Columbus Crew midfielder said. "We try to do the same thing, and it makes life much harder."
The third and final of Saturday's contests has Trinidad and Tobago playing for the first time in Port of Spain. The fans will be expecting, but the islanders have some adversity to overcome as they will be without captain Dwight Yorke, who received a four-match ban for his sending off against El Salvador. Additionally, Pacho Maturana and his Soca Warriors are well aware that they have never beaten Honduras on home soil in three tries (two draws and one loss).
"Honduras are a good passing team," said Chris Birchall, who will have extra pressure in midfield without his partner Yorke. "We've played them before, but this will be a difficult ask. They lost their first game, and they'll be a very dangerous opponent this time out."
Reynaldo Rueda's Honduras, for their part, will be keen to erase the memory of their 2-0 loss to Costa Rica last month and welcome back to the fold overseas star Wilson Palacios, who missed out on the trip to San Jose. But they will have to deal with the absence of striker David Suazo, out of the squad with a serious knee injury.