For life or death

highlighted by the life-or-death battle between two of the giants of the region in Honduras and Costa Rica.

Those two countries will face off in Honduras on Wednesday evening knowing one of the two Central American powers -- which had good performances in the final round of qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002 -- will see their World Cup dreams come to an abrupt end.

As well, the USA will have a key role to play in the other advancing team out of Group A, as all three remaining teams in the group have a chance to qualify. The final team to join Mexico out of Group C will be decided when St. Vincent and Grenadines travels to Trinidad & Tobago.

Both games on Wednesday night in Group A will be crucial, as Jamaica, Panama and El Salvador all are a victory away from joining the USA in next year's final round. Well represented by MLS players, Bruce Arena's squad hasn't lost in their final qualifying matches thus far, and they haven't lost to a CONCACAF opponent since Sept. 5, 2001, a run of 28 matches.

If Jamaica can end that streak and defeat the USA, they will advance to the final hexagonal regardless of the result in the other match. Five MLS players figure on the Reggae Boyz roster, including Chicago Fire teammates Damani Ralph and Andy Williams and Kansas City Wizards midfielder Khari Stephenson, called into the squad after playing in last Sunday's MLS Cup Final.

In Panama, the home side needs to win and a Jamaica loss to the USA to advance to the final round. Their visitors require the exact same thing -- a triumph and a Jamaican reversal. Jamaica needs to win or at least tie, as long as Panama produces the same result.

The biggest battle of the night will take place in San Pedro Sula, where Honduras and Costa Rica face off at the Estadio Francisco Morazan. Honduras comes into the match trailing Costa Rica by three points in the table, but they will advance to the final round with a victory, after a 5-2 win against the ticos in the opening match of the semifinal round.

MetroStars midfielder Amado Guevara, last week named Most Valuable Player in MLS, will captain the side now coached by José de la Paz Herrera (Chelato Uclés), after Raúl Martínez Sambulá was relieved of his duties. He will be without some important attacking weapons in his arsenal: Mynor Suazo (yellow card accumulation), Julio César "Rambo" de León (uncalled) and David Suazo (injured).

Costa Rica needs a victory, currently on a three-match winning run. Chicago Fire sensation Andy Herron has been called into the team by Jorge Luís Pinto, while Columbus Crew forward Erick Scott is out suspended (yellow card accumulation).

In the other Group B match, Los Angeles Galaxy striker Carlos Ruiz and the Guatemala national team will play host to Canada in a match that technical director Ramón "Primi" Maradiaga is using as an evaluation.

There has been little surprise in Group C, where Mexico continued its unbeaten and untied run last weekend with a 5-0 win away to St. Kitts and Nevis in a previously hurricane-hit contest. The two teams will play again on Wednesday, this time in Monterrey.

In Port-of-Spain, the host country has the advantage in joining Mexico for the other Group C ticket. The Soca Warriors have to simply gain a draw -- or lose by less than three goals -- to reach the final six. They knocked off the Vincy Heat 2-0 in the opening match of the round.

The final hexagonal begins next February, with each of the six teams facing the others home and away through October, with the top three qualifying directly for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. The fourth-placed team in the group will enter a playoff with the fourth-placed team in the Asian Football Confederation for an additional spot.

This story was not subject to the approval oof Major League Soccer or its clubs.