By Michael Lewis
Mexico and the United States continue to talk about "the next level". Most teams in CONCACAF aspire to ascend to the plateau the North Americans have reached. Still, everybody's first priority is to get to the World Cup.
With the perennial heavyweights joining the fray, qualifying for the quadrennial world championship resumes Friday in the region with the semifinal round, and 12 teams in three groups vying for one of the six coveted spots in next year's decisive "hexagonal".
The Mexicans and Americans enter the round as the unquestioned favorites, with fellow 2010 qualifier Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama the choice of some for the third guaranteed berth from CONCACAF.
Still others see Canada, El Salvador or Guatemala as potential qualifiers - with teams like Antigua & Barbuda or Guyana as intriguing outsiders.
Friday's six matches will be followed Tuesday with another six, and the next set of games scheduled for September and October.
The United States begins its attempt for a seventh consecutive World Cup appearance against Antigua in Tampa, Florida. Antigua, conversely, is in the semifinal round for the first time and may try the same tactic Canada used Sunday -- keeping as many as 10 players behind the ball - to hold the Americans to a 0-0 draw.
"What we expect is a team that will try to defend as hard as they can and speculate on counter breaks," said U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, who will be entering his first qualifying campaign as a manager. "We need to break that team down on Friday and keep the tempo up and combining a little bit faster than we did (against Canada) and creating more chances."
Antigua, which won five of six games in the previous round, enters somewhat as an unknown.
Coach Tom Curtis brings largely the same side he manages as Antigua Barracuda FC in the American third-division USL PRO league, where it sits ninth of 10 teams. The club that is the de facto Antigua national team also has reached the semifinals of the Caribbean club championship.
"We want to be competitive in this group," Curtis said. "It's important we focus on the game. Obviously, everyone has dreams and ambitions to go through to the next round. But for me as a coach, if we can be competitive in this round, then we'll have been successful. We've already been successful in terms of getting here."
Trying to become the first Jamaican side since 1998 to get to the World Cup, the Reggae Boyz hope to exploit the home-field advantage of "The Office" against Guatemala on Friday.
"Nobody comes to your office and bosses you around," Jamaica midfielder Dane Richards said, adding that the opposition gets "scared" when it plays at Independence Park in Kingston.
Guatemala approaches the World Cup with some turmoil, having suspended three players: captain Gustavo Cabrera, Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez and Yony Flores, who were implicated in match-fixing. The absences will create more demands on players such as Carlos Ruiz, who will compete for a coveted spot for the final time.
"We need to change the mentality to know that we can do it, to know that we are good players," midfielder Marco Pappa said. "There is an expectation that we need to do it. We can do it and we can make it and be positive. It's a big chance for us."
Mexico enters with the highest expectations of all, having won three straight including a 2-0 win over Brazil, albeit a largely under-23 side.
The two-time defending Gold Cup champion will start out at home against Guyana, and then go to El Salvador and Costa Rica. El Tri seemingly has the deepest roster of all, with Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Giovani Dos Santos having shined in friendlies -- despite spending most of the season on the bench at Tottenham, and Aldo De Nigris making a strong showing as well.
Anything that Guyana accomplishes in this round will be a bonus for a nation that has never qualified for the Gold Cup or World Cup. Coached by former Soca Warrior international Jamaal Shabazz, the Golden Jaguars eliminated favored Trinidad & Tobago in the second round of qualifying.
"It's not going to be an easy situation," Shabazz told FIFA World magazine. "This is not a level any of us has played or coached at, but we're up for the challenge."
Costa Rica begins World Cup qualifying trying to purge the memory of its attempt in 2010 - when a stoppage-time goal by U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein in the final hexagonal match handed what seemed like an assured spot in South Africa to Honduras.
The Ticos have switched coaches seven times since 2006 with Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto the latest to get the job.
El Salvador, which has not qualified for a FIFA World Cup since 1982, hopes its experience will prevail; eight players have 60 or more caps. The Salvadorans enter this round having swept all six of its second-round matches, though it lost 3-0 to Honduras in Washington on Saturday.
Without a clear favorite, Group C is likely the most competitive of the three.
Honduras qualified in 2010, Panama has reached the quarterfinals twice and the semifinals once in its last three Gold Cup appearances, while Canada and Cuba are routine Gold Cup participants.
"Any team can give you a surprise," Honduras midfielder Roger Espinoza said. "It's a tough group. We have Cuba, who we don't know too well. We've got to get mentally prepared."
Panama, which handed the United States its first loss in the opening round of the Gold Cup in 2011, has shown steady improvement, reaching the semifinals of the Copa Centroamericana the last four times, the quarters of the last three Gold Cups but falling short of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying in 2010.
"I hope that Panama plays well because we have the players to do so. I also hope to qualify for the World Cup, something that the entire country longs for," midfielder Gabriel Gomez said. "And we, as players, must give our all in order to grant this wish to the Panamanian people, the first World Cup in our country's history."
Buoyed by its goalless draw against the United States on Sunday, Canada makes a rare trip to Havana to meet Cuba.
"After Mexico and the USA, I think we have a very good squad," midfielder Dwayne De Rosario said. "Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of playing a lot of international friendlies. We have players stretched all across the world, playing different styles, different levels. To come in such a short time, it is very difficult to get everyone jelling and everyone on the same page."
Cuba has qualified for the Gold Cup each of the last six times, although withdrew in 2009.
The Cubans, which haven't reached the World Cup since they advanced to the quarterfinals in 1938, is expected to be led by striker Roberto Linares and veteran goalkeeper Odelin Molina, who has earned a country-record 102 international appearances.
While no player competes for a club outside the Caribbean island, coach Raul Gonzalez Triana said he expected to promote seven or eight players from his under-23 team that participated in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying. "I see a good future," he said.