On Sunday last, the draw was made for the three groups that will form the penultimate round of qualifying in the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke was given the task of announcing the group participants, who will consist of the winners of the two-legged second preliminary round fixtures.
If logic prevails and the USA beat the winner of Dominica and Barbados, the Stars and Stripes will have a testing start to their Group A campaign with trips to Guatemala and Cuba in their opening two games. Of course, this is assuming the aforementioned duo get past their still-to-be-decided opponents in their second-round fixtures.
Cuba would seem to have the more favourable draw, with the islanders scheduled to play their opening two games in Havana should they progress. However, nothing will be taken for granted, as their visitors will in all probability be the USA and Trinidad and Tobago, two sides who went all the way to Germany 2006.
The match schedule in what many consider to be the toughest group appears to have been kind to favourites Mexico. If they win their second-round tie, Hugo Sanchez's side will enjoy home advantage in three of their opening four fixtures, with only one away trip - possibly to Jamaica - on matchday 2 to worry about.
The winner of Canada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines will also have an auspicious start to the group, with home advantage guaranteed in their opening two games. In contrast, the group's other two probable participants, Honduras, away for their opening two games, and Jamaica, away for three of their first four, look to have drawn the shortest straws.
If, as expected, the much-fancied Costa Ricans progress to the group stages, they will be playing their opening two group games in San Jose's Estadio Ricardo Saprissa. However, there will be no gentle introductions for fans of the Ticos, with no less a side than Panama likely to provide the opposition in their first group game.
For their part, the Canaleros will have a tough start if they make it that far, with three of their first four games to be played on the road. However, if they are still in the mix after those four fixtures, Panama will fancy their chances of making the final round thanks to home advantage in their last two games.
With last Sunday's draw out of the way, the region's sides now have a clear picture of what stands between them and the final qualifying round in 2009. Of course, no one has yet secured their place in the first group phase and, in a region where the competition between sides seems to be intensifying all the times, do not rule out a surprise or two on the long road to South Africa.