Group 1 of the first group stage of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ contains two of the region's participants from Germany 2006 in the form of the USA and Trinidad and Tobago. Guatemala, who only just missed out on the playoff with Bahrain that took Trinidad and Tobago to the last world finals, are also lining up alongside Cuba.
USA: Reigning CONCACAF champions and arguably the best side in the region (though Mexico might have something to say about that), the USA are aiming for nothing less than a first-place finish in a deceptively challenging group. With coach Bob Bradley making a smooth transition into the post-Bruce Arena era and tapping a number of youth players for senior duty, the Americans will be hands-down favourites to top the group, although they will have to travel to some hostile locales in order to do so. One thing is certain: the challenges the Americans will face in the first group stage are sure to be far stiffer than the resistance Barbados put up when the Americans trounced them 9-0 on aggregate in the previous round.
The outsiders Guatemala: Coached by Central American master tactician Ramon Maradiaga of Honduras, Guatemala will be a challenge to the big powers. With the goal threat posed by LS Galaxy striker Carlos 'El Pescadito' Ruiz - who already has four goals from the 9-1 aggregate win over St Lucia - Guatemala are likely to be a team to watch as they hunt a place in the final group stage. As local rivals already know too well, the Estadio Mateo Flores in Guatemala City can be a buzzing and hostile venue for visiting teams.
Trinidad and Tobago: The islanders have had a rough time of it since qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup finals. Amid labour problems between national team players and the country's FA, the Soca Warriors lost their Caribbean crown to Haiti and tumbled out of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup in the group stages. However, calm seems to have been restored in the side even though they could only manage a 3-2 aggregate win in the last round against minnows Bermuda.
The players to watch
Landon Donovan (USA), Tim Howard (USA), Michael Bradley (USA), Carlos Ruiz (GUA), Gonzalo Romero (GUA), Kenwyne Jones (TRI), Stern John (TRI), Roberto Linares (CUB)
The crunch game
Cuba-USA: The USA's second away game will be against Cuba in Havana on 6 September 2008. With a turbulent history between the two nations - who no longer have diplomatic relations - the contest is bound to be an intimidating away date for the fancied Americans. A national team from the USA has not played in Cuba in over six decades, making the contest an historic affair with resonance beyond its mere sporting significance.
A look back Trinidad and Tobago-Guatemala 3-2, 5 September 2005, Port of Spain.
With a 2-1 lead and only five minutes to go, it looked like Guatemala were going to pull ahead in the race for fourth place and a playoff spot for Germany 2006. Stern John had his say, though, scoring twice in the last five minutes to give Trinidad and Tobago a famous 3-2 win. Guatemala, shocked, failed to win in their remaining three qualifiers and lost out to T&T in the quest for the playoff spot. The Trinidadians then duly beat Bahrain to qualify for their first-ever FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006.
The stat 1947 - The last time a USA national team played a match in Cuba. The two countries, who do not have diplomatic relations, will meet in Havana on 6 September.
*Did you know? * Cuba were the first Caribbean side to participate in the FIFA World Cup finals back in 1938 in France, where they beat Romania to reach the quarter-finals.
*The question * After coming so close to reaching Germany 2006, can Guatemala finally banish their nearly-men status and reach the biggest stage of them all?