By Michael Lewis
Four rounds of games remain to determine the teams that will advance to the finals of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The matches on Friday and Tuesday could begin to thin the field.
Each team will play the same opponent twice consecutively -- home and away, a novelty for CONCACAF qualifying.
With two wins already, Mexico and Panama can clinch berths in next year's final round - the "hexagonal" - with another pair of victories.
Conversely, winless sides such as Guyana and Cuba, who have zero points, could be eliminated if they don't register at least a draw. Only the top two in each group advance.
And there could be some big swings in the standings. Honduras, for example, has only one point from two games and is in third place in Group C. But if the Catrachos sweep Cuba, it could close on or move past Canada with a home match against the North Americans on the final day of qualifying on October 16.
Each group has some unique dynamics.
The United States enters its series with Jamaica with midfielder Landon Donovan and defensive midfielder Michael Bradley unavailable due to injury and midfielder-forward Clint Dempsey not match fit. Dempsey, who has not played a minute in the English Premier League this season, transferred from Fulham to Tottenham a week ago.
"We want to get maximum points if possible," U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "We're trying to get the players focused on going into Jamaica for the Friday night game and hopefully pull off a victory on Jamaican soil."
That would be a first.
Two streaks could be broken in either Kingston, Jamaica, on Friday or in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday. The Americans have never won a qualifier in Jamaica, drawing all four times - three of them goalless-- and one goal scored in the other. The Jamaicans, on the other hand, have never beaten the Americans in any qualifier, CONCACAF Gold Cup match or international friendly in 18 tries.
"I am pretty satisfied and confident going into the game against this USA team," Jamaica coach Ted Whitmore told the Jamaica Gleaner. "It's 11 versus 11 on the field, so none of that [history] matters. We know the job at hand, We know it is a tough one."
An interesting statistic is that Jamaica has more players on its roster from Major League Soccer (nine) - including Ryan Johnson, Dane Richards and Darren Mattocks -- than the United States (five).
The other pairing pits Guatemala against Antigua & Barbuda, both of which lost their opening away games, drew at home and feel they need to win both matches to have a realistic chance of advancing.
"One point wouldn't be the end of the world but we certainly need to get some sort of result out of the game so we can come back to Antigua and really give it a good go here," Antigua manager Tom Curtis told The Observer in Antigua. "It's going to be tough. It's going to be a difficult environment when we are playing against a really good team that is ranked a long way above us, but I know and feel and certainly the players have a good feeling about how we can go to Guatemala and give them a really good game."
The Benna Boys have 17 players from the Antigua Barracuda FC side that finished in last place in the USL PRO league and failed to make the playoffs for this round. Not playing in the post-season has allowed Curtis to focus on Guatemala.
The Mexicans are without midfielder Pablo Barrera, who will miss the series with Costa Rica with a torn right knee ligament suffered while playing for Cruz Azul. Giovani dos Santos, who transferred to Mallorca (Spain) last week, also won't be with the team.
Besides the absences, El Tri is coming off a jarring 1-0 loss to the United States - its first at home to the Americans. Javier (Chicharito) Hernandez has played only once this season with Manchester United and hasn't scored since Mexico's 2-0 friendly win over Brazil on June 3.
The Mexicans have eight members of their Olympic championship team on the roster, but while relishing the gold medal are not expecting it to help them intimidate Costa Rica.
They will visit National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica, on Friday.
Two points behind Mexico in the group, a split would keep Ticos close to the top knowing it still must travel to El Salvador on October 12 before finishing qualifying at home against Guyana.
Heading into Tuesday's encounter at Azteca Stadium, Costa Rica has a little history on its side, being the only team to have beaten Mexico at the famed Mexico City venue in a competitive match - doing so in 2001.
With one point, El Salvador coach Juan de Dios Castillo has mapped a very simple strategy for his "Cuscatlecos", who play at home against Guyana on Friday, head to the Caribbean island on Tuesday and then return home to face Costa Rica on October 12.
"We really need to take all nine points from the next three games," he said. "If we manage that we'll be right in the hunt, because you've got to bear in mind that Costa Rica have to face the Mexicans twice, who've shown that they're the strongest team in this pool to date."
Coached by former Trinidad & Tobago international Jamaal Shabazz, Guyana has lost two matches already and can ill afford to drop any more points. The Golden Jaguars lost 3-1 at Mexico and 4-0 at home to Costa Rica in June.
After allowing seven goals in two games, nearly twice as many as the next-worst team in CONCACAF qualifying, Guyana has added midfielder Nick Millington (Carolina RailHawks, U.S.) and defender Jamaal Smith (Syrianska FC, Sweden) to bolster its defense led by Puerto Rico Islanders defender Chris Nurse.
Considered by many to be the most balanced of the groups, Group C could become much clearer - or more muddled by next week.
Panama leads with two wins and hasn't conceded a g goal. It plays Canada - the only other team not have allowed a goal -- in Toronto on Friday before returning home to Panama City.
"There is still a long way to go," goalkeeper Jaime Penedo told FIFA.com. "We've taken important steps towards our goal, but we have achieved nothing yet."
The Canadians are two points back and will be challenged having only scored one goal in their two matches so far.
Manager Stephen Hart called Panama "a consistent squad in terms of the players selected and how they play. They have not deviated much from that. We know the team quite well. Basically they're a very disciplined team that has grown up together. They have two very interesting strikers [Blas Perez and Luis Tejeda], arguably two of the better strikers in CONCACAF. They haven't strayed much from that."
Panama eliminated Canada from the group phase in last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup, drawing 1-1 on a stoppage-time goal by Tejada.
Hoduras midfielder Roger Espinoza, one of the "Catrachos'" Olympic heroes, will miss the first game of the Cuba series due to a red card in the 3-2 quarterfinal loss to Brazil.
"Those six points are crucial," Espinoza said. "We're going to worry about the first game first and then the second game. "We have to win those games. If not, it will be it will be very tough for us to go through."
The same can be said for Cuba, which like Honduras has yet to score.