After three matchdays in the third round of North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying, old favourites Costa Rica, Mexico and USA are nearly assured of their spots in the final hexagonal phase. With perfect nine-point hauls, the region's so-called 'big three' are setting the pace for the remaining 12 CONCACAF combatants hunting a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Sven Goran-Eriksson's Mexico, despite being drawn in a much-feared Group B, have had precious little trouble roaring out to a nearly unassailable lead. El Tri struggled in their opener with Honduras, needing a comeback at the Azteca and two goals from Pavel Pardo to seal a 2-1 win, but they followed that up with a convincing 3-0 defeat of Jamaica and a 2-1 victory over Canada last week, Rafa Marquez scoring the winner.
"We have won our three home games which was our goal," Mexico's Swedish coach remarked after the Canada win in Chiapas, after which Cuauhtemoc Blanco hung up his international boots. "We played some good football and some bad football too, but in the next three road games our opponents will have to come after us, and we will have more space to create chances."
USA, current champions of CONCACAF after beating Mexico in the Gold Cup final last summer, are in even higher spirits with nine points from away wins over Guatemala and Cuba and a victory in Chicago against an under-strength Trinidad and Tobago. Bob Bradley's charges have scored five goals while conceding none.
"We're getting better and better," said defender Steve Cherundolo. "We've always won games.
That's always been what this team is about; getting results away from home and at home, but I think we're doing it playing better soccer at the moment
Central American champions Costa Rica, who qualified for the last two FIFA World Cups and are aiming for a fourth overall, overcame their poor start to qualifying with three straight wins under new coach Rodrigo Kenton. After a draw in the previous round with minnows Grenada, and the subsequent sacking of Hernan Medford, Kenton seems to have righted the ship with consecutive home wins over El Salvador and Suriname, 1-0 and 7-0 respectively, and one away in Haiti. "I hope these triumphs can clarify the real power of Costa Rica and silence one for all the criticism," said Kenton with three games to go.
Honduran hot hand
Although they have not quite matched the heroics of the aforementioned trio, Honduras have established themselves as a side with a strong chance of reaching the final group of six. They are currently on six points, three behind Mexico in the pitfall-laden Group B. Ramon Nunez has scored three goals in the Catrachos' three games so far, while group rivals Canada and Jamaica are in deep trouble and looking like needing a miracle with only one point apiece.
The Canucks have decided to stick with current coach, former international Dale Mitchell, but Jamaica have opted to sack Rene Simoes, the Brazilian who guided the Reggae Boyz to France 1998.
Behind USA in Group 1 are Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago, both tangled on four points each and in a dead heat for a place in the final round, while Cuba are all but eliminated with zero points from their games.
In Group 3, up-and-comers El Salvador, who knocked out fancied Panama in the previous round, are doing a fine job and looking good with six points from two wins. Outsiders Haiti and Suriname are languishing at the basement of the section with only a point apiece, not enough to keep Haitian boss Wagneau Eloi from losing his job.
The next round of North, Central America and Caribbean qualifying takes place on 11 October.
CONCACAF standings after three games: Group 1USA 9
Trinidad and Tobago 4
Group 2Mexico 9
Costa Rica 9
El Salvador 6