One thing is certain -- the six teams that form CONCACAF's final round of World Cup qualifying -- aka the hexagonal -- is the best group assembled in years, if not the best.
There doesn't appear to be a glaring weak sister among the teams, which includes Mexico, the United States, Panama, Jamaica, Honduras and Costa Rica.
The top three teams will qualify automatically for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with the fourth-place team taking on the Oceania champion in a home-and-away series.
Each team will play 10 games in the hexagon, which begins on Feb. 6 and continue through next Oct. 15.
This how the six finalists stack up:
Needless to say, the Mexicans -- the only semifinal team that won all of its six matches -- are in a class by themselves in CONCACAF. In fact, it will take some major upsets and some serious world-class underachieving for El Tri not to reach Brazil, this team is so loaded. Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre's biggest challenge could be finding room for promising young talent that has come through the ranks, which is pushing veterans for starting spots.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who has looked rusty and out of sorts in recent National Team appearances, needs to play regularly to get into the right rhythm a top quality sharpshooter needs and not sit the bench -- if not for Manchester United, then for another top European team. He is too good a talent to let waste away sitting on the pine. And as good as the Mexicans are, they need someone like a Hernandez to strike fear into opponents and strike some goals into the net.
In contrast to the Mexicans, the U.S.'s results and performances in the semis paled in comparison as the Americans not always played on full cylinders. Still, it was good enough to register a 4-1-1 mark, but the degree of difficulty always gets tougher in final round. There are concerns about the backline, some speed back there, and depth at the left fullback spot. Tim Howard is a world class goalkeeper and Clint Dempsey has become the main offensive force, moving past Landon Donovan. While Michael Bradley has emerged as a stabilizing force and a team leader, no one brings what Landon Donovan has to the table. The big question is if Donovan will be healthy enough to make an contribution in the next round.
A golden generation directed by former Panama international Julio Cesar Dely Valdes is poised to make history and become the first team from that Central American nation to reach the World Cup. Los Canaleros certainly have done well, making some history by becoming the first team to upend the United States in the opening round of the CONCACAF Gold Cup on American soil in 2011. This team is for real, behind the likes of Blas Perez, Gabriel Gomez and Luis Tejada, among others. At the moment, I would put Panama quite close to the United States in my own CONCACAF rankings. We'll see if that will stand up next year.
The team is considered the best Jamaican side since the Reggae Boyz reached the World Cup for the very first time in 1998. However, the big question is whether it is good enough to reach Brazil. It's not that the only Caribbean side to have survived the semifinals is bad; it's that the Jamaicans could very well be squeezed out of the top three berths by Mexico, the U.S. and Panama, forcing them to fight for the fourth spot and a playoff. Compared to other Jamaican teams, this is a much more disciplined side. And it has plenty of talent -- dangerous forward Luke Shelton, for example, and plenty of speed, for example Dane Richards scored twice late in the match to secure a 4-1 win over Antigua & Barbuda on Tuesday and a spot in the final round.
Even without two key starters -- goalkeeper Noel Valladares and box-to-box midfielder Roger Espinoza -- Los Catrachos managed to secure a berth via a tie at favored Panama and an 8-1 whipping of Canada on Tuesday night. The Hondurans have several key players who perform in Major League Soccer. They also have plenty of firepower, boasting Olympic scoring hero and striker Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly, and defender Maynor Figueroa, among others. Like Panama, this could be a special time for Honduran soccer, which qualified for the 2010 World Cup. Lost in Mexico's gold-medal headlines was a Honduran side that battled and lost to eventual silver medal Brazil in the Olympic quarterfinals, 3-2.
For a country of 4.5 million people, Costa Rica has acquitted itself quite well in CONCACAF, reaching the World Cup three times since 1990, including two in 2002 and 2006. While the Ticos have always been competitive, they struggled to get through Group B before securing passage with two wins in the last two games. The Costa Ricans have gone through seven coaches the past six years, with Jorge Luis Pinto being the latest man in charge. One factor that may have affected the Costa Rica is its new National Stadium in San Jose. It is a beautiful ground, but lacks the intimidating factor that Saprissa Stadium has inflicted on Costa Rica's international opposition (just ask the USA). The Ticos, led by Bryan Ruiz, could be a hungry side in light of how they missed out on an automatic berth to South Africa 2010. That's when U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein scored in extratime in a 2-2 draw (the U.S. had qualified several days earlier), a result that helped Honduras reach the tournament.