The CONCACAF World Cup Qualifier has its final six teams in place.
After an exciting night of soccer—one that saw a total of 29 goals scored—Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Jamaica and the United States all survived the semifinals and are ready to battle in the double round-robin competition known as the Hexagonal.
The top three countries will automatically qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with the fourth playing an inter-confederation playoff against Oceania’s first-place team.
The Hex will not begin until February 6, but here are the six countries participating in the final round from worst to first.
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FIFA Ranking: 52
World Cup Appearances: 1 (1998)
Best Match: 2-1 victory over United States
The Reggae Boyz entered the final day of the semifinals needing help in order to advance to the Hexagonal.
Trailing Guatemala and the United States by three points, Jamaica benefited from the United States’ 3-1 victory over Guatemala and secured their spot in the Hex with a 4-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda.
Jamaica’s 3-1 goal differential over Guatemala served as the tiebreaker that allowed the Reggae Boyz to reach the final round for the first time since the 2002 cycle.
Jamaica carries a plethora of talented players that call the MLS home, including Dane Richards (Vancouver Whitecaps) who scored two of Jamaica’s goals vs. Antigua and Barbuda on Tuesday night.
They are a speedy bunch, but unfortunately for Jamaica they are not up to par with some of the other countries in the final round and will fail to qualify for the fourth-straight time.
They will need to show the resolve they displayed in their 2-1 victory over the United States in Kingston, Jamaica, in order to have any chance at even placing fourth.
FIFA Ranking: 43
World Cup Appearances: 0
Best Match: 2-0 victory over Honduras
Panama has never qualified for a World Cup and will continue to disappoint their fans when they fail to qualify once more.
They have progressed in the region—best noted with their performance in the last four Gold Cups—but still lack the talent to represent the CONCACAF.
Their 2-0 victory over Honduras in the opening match of the semifinals was instrumental in their advancement to the Hexagonal, but their lackluster performance since then is a cause for concern.
Led by Blas “Super Ratón” Pérez's three goals, Panama finished group play with 11 points.
It was good enough for second in the table (losing the tiebreaker to Honduras on goal differential), but a 0-0 draw with Honduras and a 1-1 draw with lowly Cuba in their final two matches is not worthy of a World Cup team.
Panama is not the most dynamic team in the competition—scoring only six goals in the semifinals—but they are well structured and difficult to break down defensively.
The hexagonal provides some of the most chaotic environments to perform in, and with Panama's struggles on foreign soil, they are environments I believe will get the best of them.
Expect them to compete for fourth place in the group, but ultimately fall short.
FIFA Ranking: 72
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1990, 2002, 2006)
Best Match: 7-0 victory over Guyana
Costa Rica has qualified for two of the last three World Cups, but failed to make the trip to South Africa in 2010.
Of the six countries in the Hex, they carry the lowest ranking the CONCACAF according to FIFA, but were the most impressive in the final two matches of the semifinals.
The Ticos found themselves two points behind El Salvador headed into the final two matches and their 1-0 victory in San Salvador, El Salvador, reaffirmed their reputation in the CONCACAF.
Not to be outdone by Honduras, Costa Rica annihilated Guyana 7-0 on Tuesday night, sending them to their fifth-straight Hexagonal.
La Sele boasts an impressive attack that can strike the back of the net in an instant.
They are one of the more dynamic teams in the competition and are led by captain Bryan Ruiz (Fulham), Álvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake) and up-and-comer Joel Campbell—currently on loan from Arsenal (via ESPN).
Costa Rica has been a thorn in the United States' side in recent years and have not lost to the Men's National Team since 2005 (3-0-2 in their last five matches).
If the Ticos play at the level they displayed their last two matches, they should not have much difficulty securing one of the top four spots in the group.
FIFA Ranking: 66
World Cup Appearances: 2 (1982, 2010)
Best Match: 8-1 victory over Canada
Honduras entered the final night of the semifinals needing a victory over Canada in order to advance to the Hexagonal, and they did so in emphatic fashion.
Their 8-1 demolition of Canada reads like the final of a FIFA 13 simulation and Honduras managed to recover from their opening defeat to Panama (a 2-0 loss in San Pedro Sula, Honduras).
After a 28-year absence, Honduras is looking to qualify for their second straight World Cup and build on their impressive performance at the 2012 Olympics.
Like Jamaica, Honduras too has a heavy representation of players that call the MLS home, none more promising than forward Jerry Bengston of the New England Revolution.
Bengston has accounted for five of Honduras’s 12 goals during the semifinals—the same amount he has scored for the Revolution all season—including a hat trick in Honduras's 8-1 defeat of Canada.
Honduras will challenge for the final automatic-qualifying spot in the Hex, and although I rank them third as of this moment, I believe they will finish fourth and play in the dreaded inter-federation playoff.
Hondurans, however, should not be concerned. Their upward trajectory in recent years leads me to believe they will be one of the four teams representing the CONCACAF in the World Cup.
FIFA Ranking: 32
World Cup Appearances: 9 (1930, 1950, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Match: 3-1 victory over Guatemala
The United States were not as impressive in the semifinal round as many would have liked, but they were without Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley—the holy trinity of American soccer—for a majority of the round.
Even for all their disappointments, the USMNT still finished atop the group with 13 points.
One of the bright spots in the semifinal round for the United States was the inspired play of Graham Zusi and his increased contributions will be vital for the Men's National Team moving froward.
Jürgen Klinsmann is attempting to lead the USMNT to their seventh straight World Cup appearance, but has left the United States Soccer Federation with more questions than answers.
His questionable tinkering with the lineup, inconsistent formations and less-than-proactive methods, are not reflective of the blueprint he promised when he signed his $2.5 million contract in July of 2011.
The most glaring flaw has been his inability to infuse young talent into the starting XI.
This is a young man's game, and veterans of this team will be on the wrong side of 30 in the summer of 2014.
The United States is facing a laundry list of issues entering January's camp, but should still have no issues automatically qualifying for the World Cup.
With Dempsey and Bradley back in club form and Donovan able to recover from a knee injury that the AP reported kept him from the qualifiers (via the LA Times), expect the trio to lead the United States into Brazil.
FIFA Ranking: 19
World Cup Appearances: 14 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Match: 5-0 victory over Guyana
This one is a no-brainer.
It is almost criminal to allow Mexico to qualify in the CONCACAF region.
El Tri dominated the semifinal round—the only country to win all six of their matches—outscoring their opponents 15-2 in the process.
It is impossible to look at any position on this roster and not recognize a remarkable talent and they have clearly distanced themselves from the rest of the region.
Mexico has qualified for every World Cup since 1994 and has reached the round of 16 in all of them. The question is whether they are ready to take that final step towards greatness.
Their U-23 team was able to do so when they brought home the soccer-crazed nation its first medal in the 2012 Olympics, and like Honduras, Mexico is looking to build on their Olympic momentum.
It would be shocking to see Mexico finish any lower than first in group play, but their true test will come in 2014 as they attempt to join the world's elite.