By Michael Lewis
With only one spot settled for next year's hexagonal, the final qualifying phase of CONCACAF's World Cup semifinal round has just about everybody else on edge.
Eight teams have legitimate chances of clinching one of the five remaining berths. Guatemala, the United States and Jamaica are tied atop Group A; El Salvador is one point ahead of Costa Rica in Group B; while Panama leads Honduras and Canada by two points in Group C.
Cuba is the only team so far mathematically eliminated entering matches Friday and Tuesday, but Antigua & Barbuda and Guyana are on the brink.
With four victories in as many games, Mexico is the only side that has clinched a berth in the final six-team round of qualifying.
Since berths are undecided in each of the three groups, nearly every game could have impact on who advances and who doesn't.
Regardless of the results Friday, nobody can clinch a berth from Group A until Tuesday night.
Guatemala, the United States and Jamaica have all have seven points, but the Americans and Chapines are ahead of Jamaica on goal difference.
Two former Major League Soccer players -- striker Carlos Ruiz and midfielder Marco Pappa -- who have scored stunning late goals for Guatemala against the United States in the past, could play a key role against the Americans this time. Ruiz's 88th-minute header gave the Central Americans a 1-1 draw at home during 2002 qualifying and Pappa's 83rd-minute equalizer also gave his side a 1-1 draw in June.
The United States will have central midfielder Michael Bradley, whose absence was noticeable in Jamaica's 2-1 home win on September 7. The American attack, however, might not be at its best at Antigua on Friday, missing midfielder-forward Landon Donovan with a knee injury. Coach Juergen Klinsmann also left two hot goal-scorers off the team -- Chris Wondolowski, who leads MLS with 25 goals, and Jozy Altidore, who shares the Dutch league scoring lead (eight goals).
The Jamaicans, who have called in eight MLS players, play at Guatemala on Friday and return home win against Antigua on Tuesday. Coach Theodore Whitmore will put his trust in the likes of strikers Luton Shelton and Ryan Johnson, midfielder Demar Phillips, who missed the U.S. matches due to injury, among others. Midfielder Andre Lewis, an 18-year-old youth international, also was called in.
A draw or loss to the United States will eliminate Antigua, which reached the semifinals for the first time in its history. The Caribbean side, which won its first five games in the second round of qualifying, have managed only a point in its last five. However, at home during qualifying, it has allowed only three goals in five games.
The second-place Salvadorans could clinch a spot in the next round with a win at home over Costa Rica on Friday. Any other result would seemingly favor the Ticos, who host winless on Tuesday. On the same day, El Salvador will travel to at Azteca Stadium face Mexico.
Costa Rica will have to play without Saprissa defender Gabriel Badilla, who apparently aggravated an ankle injury. His spot was taken by Herediano's Pablo Salazar, called into the squad for the first time in seven years.
While Mexico already has clinched its place, El Tri still could play a pivotal role in determining who moves on and who stays home.
After playing at Guyana on Friday, the Mexicans host the Salvadorans. Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre has called in many regulars including defenders Hector Moreno and Francisco Rodriguez, midfielders Andres Guardado and Angel Reyna and strikers Aldo de Nigris, Javier Hernandez and Olympic hero Oribe Peralta.
Guyana, which twice has scored two goals in a game in the semifinals, still has a chance to reach the next round. The Caribbean team would need to win both of its games - including an upset over Mexico on Friday.
With nine points, Panama is in position to advance relatively easily. Los Canaleros could clinch with a victory at home against Honduras on Friday before playing at Cuba on Tuesday.
The Hondurans, conversely, would be bolstered by a result in Panama City, giving them confidence entering Tuesday night's confrontation against Canada in San Pedro Sula. Los Catrachos will have to make do without goalkeeper Noel Valladares and midfielder Roger Espinoza, who were sidelined by ankle injuries.
Canada, in third place behind Honduras due to goal difference, needs a big win over winless Cuba in Toronto on Friday to make itself more secure entering Tuesday's clash. For example, a three-goal victory over Cuba and a draw or loss by Honduras against Panama would put Canada in position to advance with only a draw in its final match.
The North Americans, however, will have to compensate for the loss of career scoring leader and midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, who was injured in the last round of qualifying.