Mexico and the United States, widely regarded as the top two teams in the CONCACAF Zone, booked passage to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ on Saturday. Mexico eliminated El Salvador at their Azteca with a 4-1 win while the Stars and Stripes made sure of their place among the top-three automatic qualifiers with a dramatic 3-2 win over Honduras on the road in San Pedro Sula. Costa Rica and Honduras are left to battle it out for the final automatic spot on Wednesday. The loser of the final-matchday duel will face the unenviable task of playing off against South America's fifth-place finisher. Honduras need a win in their last game, away to El Salvador, while Costa Rica head to the US with a little wiggle room.
The United States pulled off one of the biggest shocks of this - or any other - qualifying campaign in North, Central America and the Caribbean Zone by coming back from a goal down to edge Honduras 3-2. Under heavy pressure early, the Americans looked to be on their way to a hiding when Italy-based Julio de Leon curled home a delicate free-kick on the stroke of half-time. However, the second period belonged to the courageous visitors as coach Bob Bradley, with selection problems in attack after an injury to Clint Dempsey, looked every inch the tactical maestro. The beefy Conor Casey - preferred to highly rated youngster Jozy Altidore - scored twice to put the cap on a famous 3-2 win in San Pedro Sula. It was the first home loss of the campaign suffered by the Catrachos, who saw all-time top-scorer Carlos Pavon miss a penalty kick and an out-and-out sitter, to put their hopes of direct passage to South Africa 2010 in serious jeopardy. They will need a win on the road against eliminated - but much-improved - El Salvador to finish in the top three and avoid the dreaded play-off with South America's fifth-place finisher.
In other action
The game between Mexico and El Salvador in Mexico City began with an ominous omen, as a massive swarm of bees behind the Salvadoran goal caused play to be halted for more than ten minutes. The Mexicans bounced right back from the odd event, however, winning out 4-1 on the night. The scoreline was harsh on the brave Central Americans, but it still sees them mathematically eliminated from contention for a spot in South Africa. Cuauhtémoc Blanco's pressure forced Marvin Gonzalez to put through his own net on 25 minutes and the old veteran scored the second in the 71st minute after a fine build-up. Francisco Palencia made it 3-1 after 84 minutes before the goal of the game, a stunning free-kick from Julio Martinez, cut the lead to 3-1. Any hopes of a fight-back were extinguished when Carlos Vela, outstanding throughout, made certain of Mexico's place at the world finals in the 90th minute with a delicate finish from close range.
Costa Rica made easy meat of already-eliminated Trinidad and Tobago at home in San Jose. In their first game under new coach Rene Simoes, the Ticos managed to put an end to a wretched run of form that saw them lose their last three qualifiers, conceding eight goals and scoring none. An own goal opener by the unfortunate Radanfah Abubakr got them on their way early, before Walter Centeno hit home from a cross from Alvaro Saborio in the 50th minute. Provider Saborio then turned scorer, grabbing a pair of late goals to seal a simple-enough 4-0 rout.
Player of the day - Cuauhtémoc Blanco (MEX)
Called out of retirement by coach Javier Aguirre, the 36-year-old schemer rolled back the years again on Saturday. At the heart of every meaningful attack, the paunchy MLS-based creator inspired the first Mexican goal in their 4-1 rout of El Salvador and scored the crucial second by hammering home after a delightful piece of interplay that saw Guille Franco, Andres Guardado and Carlos Vela all get in on the action. It was the goal that finally took the air out of brave El Salvador, and Blanco celebrated by embracing Aguirre on the touchline before ambling off the pitch to a standing ovation with 13 minutes to go.
What they said
"I just can't believe it, the feelings are just too much. We had to keep our composure and be calm tonight as El Salvador are a very complicated side. This is the end of a very tough qualifying campaign and we showed our strength and our spirit and we never gave up," Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa.
14 - With their win over El Salvador, Mexico became the first team from North, Central America and the Caribbean to qualify for South Africa 2010. It will be El Tri's 14th go-around at the global extravaganza, best among sides from the region.