There were precious few surprises at the weekend as the second round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ drew to a close in North, Central America and the Caribbean. The USA, Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago - the region's representatives at the last world finals in Germany in 2006 - all moved on to the first group stage.
There was little mystery heading into the USA's second leg against Barbados in Bridgetown on Sunday. Having amassed an 8-0 edge in Los Angeles a week earlier, the return fixture was a foregone conclusion and allowed coach Bob Bradley to experiment with youngsers like Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela and Sacha Kljestan.
"We feel good about the work we've done," said USA coach Bob Bradley, who rested a number of his usual starters and still managed a 1-0 win thanks to a goal from Eddie Lewis. "This was an opportunity to use different players and it is important to get some young players experience."
Also on Sunday, Cuba finished the job against Antigua and Barbuda at home in Havana. With a 4-3 edge from the first leg, Roberto Linares bagged a hat-trick in a 4-0 win (8-3 aggregate). Haiti - champions of the Caribbean - needed a dose of good fortune to book their passage to the group stage. After drawing 0-0 with the Netherlands Antilles in the first leg, the Francophone islanders required a first-minute own goal from Eugene Martha to seal the series in nervy fashion (1-0).
Trinidad and Tobago, who went into their return leg in Bermuda looking like the possible shock losers of the round, managed to turn things around on Sunday. Having lost to the Gombey Warriors last weekend in Macoya, they needed at least a two-goal margin of victory on Sunday, and that's just what they got thanks to strikes from Darryl Roberts and Stern John in a 2-0 win (3-2 overall).
Suriname managed the first of two surprise results in the second round, edging out Guyana - whose comparatively high rank saw them get a bye through the first round - 3-1 on aggregate. After winning 1-0 in Paramaribo last week, the Surinamese - primarily amateur and largely youth players under the age of 23 - pulled off a 2-1 win on the road in the return affair, the goals coming from Germaine Sergio Van Dijk and Clifton Sandvliet.
The second shock of the round came when El Salvador overturned their 1-0 loss to Panama in the first leg with a 3-1 win at their much-feared Cuscatlan Stadium in San Salvador. Eliseo Quintanilla scored twice in a comeback win and Luis Anaya sealed the deal in the 87th minute. The 3-2 aggregate victory sees the Salvadorans through at the expense of Panama, 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup runners-up and the fifth-ranked team in the region.
On Saturday, Mexico did the business against Central American side Belize in Monterrey. After winning only 2-0 in the first leg in Los Angeles, El Tri found their scoring boots and pulled off a 7-0 win with goals from Jared Borgetti (2), Fernando Arce (2), Andres Guardado, Carlos Vela and an own goal by Tervor Lennen.
"I'm really happy to have achieved the goal I set out when I was hired," said Jesus 'Chucho' Ramirez, the interim coach who will now step down to make way for Sven Goran Eriksson. Carlos Salcido was pleased with the result, but knows there are big tests to come. "The next round will be very different with stronger teams and a higher level of football, but we have to be positive and think we are going to get through and qualify to South Africa. We know we still have a lot of improving to do."
Costa Rica overcame a 2-2 draw in their first leg in Grenada to beat the Spice Boyz 3-0 on Saturday, allowing under-fire coach Hernan Medford to breathe a huge sigh of relief. "I was hired to help the team accomplish certain goals and we have accomplished our first one," the former Tico star said. "We knew it was going to be difficult, but today we got a good win. We were not 100 per cent effective, but I am happy anyway."
Guatemala, who won their first leg 6-0, had no problems in the return as Gonzalo Romero scored twice in a 3-1 win over St. Lucia to bring the aggregate to a bloated 9-1. Canada beat St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday to join Jamaica and Honduras - who both settled their respective series early - in the next round.
The winners and runners-up from each group will take part in the final group stage in North, Central America and the Caribbean.