With no less than 35 sides hoping to snatch up one of the 3.5 slots at South Africa 2010 on offer in the region, CONCACAF is bound to get competitive once matches commence in early 2008. Age-old rivals USA and Mexico will be favourites to finish in the first and second spots, while Costa Rica hope to keep up their fine qualifying form of late with a third straight appearance on the world stage.
On the outside looking in, though, are a good number of talented hopefuls keen on making their own history. Among them are perennial nearly men Honduras, tricky T&T, Canada, the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica, plus Panama and Guatemala.
Thinning the minnows
The first round of competition will see the 24 lowest-ranked teams in action with the aim of thinning the herd to 12 ahead of the big names' entrance into the equation.
Next up for the lucky 11 first stage winners (and St. Vincent / Grenadines who have a bye to the second phase) will be the formidable task of taking on one of the region's powers over two legs. If all goes according to plan, the big three in the region (USA, Mexico and Costa Rica) could be in for some true tests in their third round home-away round robin groups.
The regional champions USA could meet near neighbours Cuba, Guatemala and T&T, who qualified for Germany 2006, while Mexico may find themselves in for long trips to Honduras, Canada and Jamaica. Costa Rica can count on some keenly contested encounters if they meet Guyana - undefeated for 14 matches between 2004 and 2006, Panama and Caribbean champions Haiti.
The top two teams from each of the third-round groups will then move into a six-team final qualifying round, with the top three qualifying directly for South Africa 2010, and the fourth lining up in a two-legged play-off against South America's fifth finisher.
The United States finished tops in the region ahead of fierce rivals Mexico for the first time in qualifying for Germany 2006, surely putting the heated rivalry into high gear this time around. Mexico have qualified for a regional-best 12 finals overall, but the States have been on the ascendancy since qualifying for Italy 1990 after a 40-year stint without an appearance.
Costa Rica are defending Central American champions and have qualified for the last two finals since making their world debut in 1990. They will be fancying their chances under new coach and former striking legend Hernan Medford, but do not look as formidable a side as they once were.
With the big three entrenched as favourites to return to the world stage, there is a raft of improving sides looking to break in. Trinidad and Tobago will be chief among them, even with the absence of talismanic coach Leo Beenhakker and the retirement of former Manchester United great Dwight Yorke.
A new hope
Panama have been moving from strength to strength of late. They reached the final qualifying round ahead of Germany 2006 for the first time in their history and finished runners-up to the USA at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2005.
Guatemala, who only just missed out on a spot at Germany 2006, will also be hoping things go slightly better this time around and counting on their gifted goal-getter Carlos El Pescadito Ruiz. Although they are going through a rebuilding phase, Jamaica could be a squad to be wary of also as resurgent Canada hope to make their second finals appearance at South Africa 2010.
Can Honduras finally live up to their billing and muscle into the world finals in South Africa in 2010?