The most recent qualifying campaign in North, Central America and the Caribbean was tenser than any in recent memory. At the final whistle it was the old favourites - USA and Mexico - leading the pack, but the drama went right down to the wire and neither of thesewas safe before the penultimate round. FIFA.com takes a look back at 16 long months of action and tension in the New World.
Big two on top
In hindsight, it was predictable that USA and Mexico - who share nine of the last ten regional titles between them and have become regular fixtures at the FIFA World Cup™ - would end up fronting the race to South Africa. It was no easy journey, however, for either side. Mexico began their campaign under Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and struggled badly, slipping out of the automatic qualifying places for a time and losing on the road to Honduras and the USA.
The turnaround in form and self-belief came when former boss Javier Aguirre was appointed in April 2009. He lost his first game in the hot seat to El Salvador, but saved the day in the long run, leading the Mexicans on a six-game unbeaten run and to a second-place finish behind the USA. Aguirre, formerly of Osasuna and Atletico Madrid in the Spanish top flight, got the best out of young charges Giovani dos Santos and Andres Guardado, while coaxing old veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco out of retirement, creating a sense of cohesiveness and fighting spirit in the camp.
The USA finished top of the qualifying table in CONCACAF, but they didn't have things all their own way either. Bob Bradley's men started strongly enough and, even in erratic times, managed to get the results they needed. A 3-1 loss in Costa Rica and a predictable defeat against Mexico at the Azteca were the only real blemishes on a workmanlike and highly professional campaign, which ended in Washington DC with a last-gasp draw against Costa Rica after going two goals down.
The result cemented USA's proud record of not having lost a qualifier on home soil since 2001. "It's great. I think we've seen in this cycle more than any that CONCACAF has gotten a lot stronger. Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, us, it has been a battle. So, to finish first is a great achievement," said midfielder Michael Bradley.
Costa Rica catastrophe, Honduran joy
The parity that has emerged in the region was best displayed by the down-to-the-wire drama that unfolded between Honduras and Costa Rica. The Hondurans lost their penultimate match to the USA in San Pedro Sula and, as a result, had to win in El Salvador on the final day and hope that Costa Rica failed to win on the road against the US.
The Ticos, who qualified for the last two FIFA World Cups and led the final round for a long stretch, were in the driving seat after Brian Ruiz's two first-half goals against the awkward-looking Americans. However, a late collapse turned the result in Washington DC to a draw and coupled with a Carlos Pavon-led 1-0 win in San Salvador to send Honduras back to the finals by virtue of their slightly better goal difference. In the end only four points separated the top four finishers in the region, a testament to massive improvements as CONCACAF look like sending their best-ever representatives to a FIFA World Cup finals next year.
Costa Rica, as fourth-place finishers, will need to get past Uruguay if they want to line up at their third-ever world finals next summer in South Africa. The play-off will take place over two legs, with Costa Rica hosting the first game on 14 November and the Montevideo leg coming four days later.
Trinidad and Tobago - who shocked the world last time out by qualifying for Germany 2006 - looked a shadow of their former selves during the most recent campaign. First under coach Francisco Maturana and later led by former player Russell Latapy, the Soca Warriors were never quite on song, picking up only six points from their ten final round games and finishing dead last. El Salvador, on the other hand, finished second-bottom, two points ahead of T&T and displayed massive improvement under new coach Carlos de los Cobos.
Jozy Altidore was the USA's top scorer with six goals. Improving all the time, the bulky striker will be one to watch next summer in South Africa. Mexico's Giovani dos Santos proved his detractors wrong with some impressive performances at important times for El Tri, backed up able by the likes of Blanco, Guardado and Memo Ochoa in goal. Honduras, for their part, were thanking goal king Carlos Pavon, Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa and midfield creator Amado Guevara for their impressive shifts throughout. Costa Rica, though they trailed off at the end, saw some fine work from Ruiz, Walter Centeno and young keeper Keilor Navas.