The final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying gets underway this week, marking the start of the most fair and even way of determining a confederation's World Cup representatives*. The region has narrowed its possible World Cup teams to six teams, which will be placed in a single group and compete home-and-away throughout 2013 to determine who earns a spot in Brazil.
* This is obviously aided by the small number of World Cup quality teams and spots in the World Cup allocated to CONCACAF.
The format puts incredible pressure on all teams involved. A bad weekend could see a team lose two matches and end up fighting an uphill battle to qualify and nobody feels the pressure more than those right on the edge of qualifying. The United States and Mexico, who have flirted with not qualifying and are not sure bets to qualify, should make it into the top three of the Hex, but the remaining teams have little room for error.
This cycle, two of the teams who will face immense pressure from the very first kick are Costa Rica and Panama, who kick off their Hex campaigns against each other on Wednesday in Panama City.
One of the most improved teams this cycle, Panama rides one of the best defenses in CONCACAF that allowed just two goals in the third round of qualifying. Anchored by Felipe Baloy, Panama is disciplined and physical at the back, which isn't all that different than they are up front. With Blas Perez up top, Panama's primary plan of attack is to beat up the opposing defense, which isn't exactly, but can be pretty.
Los Canaleros' World Cup hopes will not rest on trusted veterans Baloy and Perez, though. It will come to plays like Nelson Barahona, who bears much of the creative responsibility in the Panama midfield and will have to provide Perez with some support making runs behind the big hulking striker.
While Panama is searching for its first ever World Cup appearance, Costa Rica are looking to get back after missing out on South Africa in 2010. After qualifying for the World Cup in 2006, many expected Costa Rica to return in 2006, but they were edged out conceding in stoppage time in their final Hex match. Having given up the lead on what was essentially the last play of the Hex, the Ticos dropped two points and into fourth place, which forced them into a playoff that they lost.
Costa Rica are in a bit of a precarious position this cycle as they transition from an older generation of players to the new, talented, but somewhat inexperienced group. One of the few players in their prime that they do depend on is Alvaro Saborio, who has to be excellent for the Ticos to succeed, which he was in leading the semifinal round in scoring with six goals last round. Paired with Bryan Ruiz, who isn't in the form he was three years ago, but is still very good, Costa Rica has quite a formidable pair of goal scorers.
The Ticos are actually overstocked up top, with Joel Campbell and Jairo Arrieta, but the big question for Costa Rica is how they sort out their midfield. Celso Borges and Christian Bolanos are extremely talented, but are shuttled in and out of the lineup by the curious Jorge Luis Pinto. If he continues to play musical chairs with his midfield, which has helped expose a sometimes shaky defense, the Ticos could be left watching the World Cup from home yet again.
Last cycle, Costa Rica missed out on third place and a guaranteed World Cup place on goal difference. The battle for qualifying gets that tight and should be just as hotly contested, only with more teams involved, this time around. CONCACAF isn't as good at the top as it was four years ago, but it is deeper and it's not a four team race this time. All six teams in the Hex can make a run and qualify, making every single match more important than ever before.
For Costa Rica and Panama, that starts on Wednesday in Panama City. Game on.