The six surviving sides in North, Central America and the Caribbean are just under a month away from their second outing in the 'hexagonal.' As things stand, once-mighty Mexico and Honduras can't buy a goal or a point, while Costa Rica and USA lead the way. FIFA.com takes a closer look at the state of play among CONCACAF's elite as they hunt 3.5 places at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
The US are in the driving seat after beating Mexico 2-0 in Columbus on 11 February. The win extended the Americans' home winning streak over their southern neighbours and arch-rivals to 11 meetings and establishes Bob Bradley's men among the favourites to rule the region on the road to South Africa. However, Landon Donovan and Co will face a decidedly different kind of test on 28 March when they head into the pressure cooker of Central America and El Salvador's Estadio Cuscatlan.
Home advantage means everything in CONCACAF. USA have improved in the tropical Central American sub-region, winning four and losing three in the last ten years, but they still have a losing record overall. San Salvador is a long way from home for the US, as defensive stalwart Frankie Hejduk, attests. "It's not easy playing down there," the Columbus Crew man, 34, told FIFA.com. "They'll do everything they can to get an advantage over you."
Carlos de los Cobos' Salvadorans, who are looking to reach their first FIFA World Cup since 1982, drew their opener thanks to a pair of late free-kicks from Osael Romero, and a full three-point haul against the table toppers would transform them from outsiders to real contenders.
Costa Rica came out flying in their first contest, beating much-feared neighbours Honduras 2-0 at home in San Jose. And their reward for winning eight straight games in South Africa 2010 qualifying is a trip to Mexico's fortress Azteca on the 28th. The difficulties of playing at the ground, over 7000 ft up in the mountains surrounding Mexico City, are well documented, and best illustrated by the fact that only one team has ever beaten El Tri there. Fortunately for the visitors, that team was Costa Rica - in the qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002 - a goal from Hernan Medford sealing the deal.
The current Tico coach, Rodrigo Kenton, took over the reins from Aztecazo hero Medford at the start of the semi-final round, and has put together an impressive and fast-moving squad, one highlighting the country's younger practitioners like Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz and two-goal man against Honduras Andy Furtado. Tied with the United States in top spot, confidence is bound to be high in the Costa Rican camp.
On the other hand, Mexican misery will be at unparalleled lows. Once the undisputed kings of the region, El Tri - 13-times FIFA World Cup finalists - are going through a moment of profound distress. Picking up only one point from their last four qualifiers, coach Sven-Goran Eriksson is very much under pressure.
Unable to find an effective goalscoring combination (his side have scored only two goals in their last four qualifiers), the Swede will be thrilled to welcome Andres Guardado and Carlos Vela back into the fold. The coach will, however, have to make do without captain Rafa Marquez, who saw red against the USA. Regardless, the 100,000-plus fans at the Azteca will certainly be expecting a considerably better performance than the tepid showing produced in Ohio last month.
Honduras continue their tough start to the final round with a second straight away examination, this time in Trinidad and Tobago. Although the Catrachos, along with Mexico, are propping up the six-team group, much is expected of Reynaldo Rueda's men, led ably by foreign-based standouts David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, Wilson Palacios (who missed the Costa Rica game through suspension) and captain Amado Guevara.
T&T, for their part, will need to shake off the disappointment of letting a two-goal lead slip in the dying minutes of their opener with El Salvador, and will also need to perform at their Hasely Crawford Stadium without iconic captain Dwight Yorke, who picked up a late red card in that opening match.