PORTLAND, Ore. – When the Belize national team takes the field against the US on Tuesday in their CONCACAF Gold Cup opener (11 pm ET, Fox Soccer, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), head coach Ian Mork believes in his heart that his players will get a chance to show they deserve to ply their trade professionally in MLS.
As for himself, well, he’s not so sure.
“I openly feel like I’m still learning myself and trying to kind of master my own philosophy of the game,” the Wichita, Kan., native told MLSsoccer.com on Sunday. “That’s just a process.”
Mork is something of a gun for hire for the Central American minnows. He works for several youth clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area and – somewhat awkwardly given Tuesday’s matchup – as a scout for U.S. Soccer. He’s been working off and on for the Football Federation of Belize since 2004 after a stint as a player-coach in that country, and this marks his second tenure in charge of the senior national team.
On Tuesday here at JELD-WEN Field, he’ll get another chance to show his chops to the rest of CONCACAF when the team he coaches takes on that of his native land.
Mork (at right) is on a very short list of Americans who have coached foreign national teams, believed to be around a half-dozen. His name is nowhere near as recognizable as those of two of that group, Bob Bradley and Steve Sampson. But the challenge facing him in the tiny Central American nation of 312,000 is perhaps more difficult.
He’s working with a group of players that – with the exception of three – all ply their trade in the semi-pro Belize Premier Football League and make ends meet with odd jobs in tourism, law enforcement and retail. His employers are so underfunded that the Belizean FA organized a local telethon to fund the national team’s trip to the Gold Cup.
“We went through periods of time without basic necessities like physiotherapists,” Mork explained, “or when it rains, we can’t afford an indoor facility to train in. Other basics like travel gear and equipment for players, basic compensation and food. I just try my best not to focus on it that much.”
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What Mork does focus on is his players. The 41-year-old has coached club teams in Belize as well as several levels of the youth national team and even spent time as the Belizean FA’s technical director.
Five years ago, he was contacted by the federation and asked to take the reins of the senior team for two World Cup qualifiers once it became clear the standing coach couldn’t get a visa to travel to the US. Because no stadium back home met FIFA’s international standards, Belize opted to play the home leg of their two-game set with mighty Mexico in Houston.
El Tri blasted Belize back to reality over their two games by a 9-0 aggregate, but Mork, was victorious in getting his players to believe in the idea that they could compete at a higher level. He’s working with some of those same players in this Gold Cup, as well as a handful he coached at the U-21 level.
And despite the lack of resources, Mork easily finds the reward in working with them.
“They’re super motivated,” he said. “There’s a lot of humility there and they’re really open to coaching. They just soak it all up. It’s really gratifying because you can see results in a short amount of time. But then when it gets to the top pro level, those years of missed development start to catch up and you really see the importance of the structure of real youth programs like we have in the US.”
This tournament marks Belize’s first participation in the Gold Cup thanks to their surprising fourth-place finish in this past January’s Copa Centroamericana, where the Jaguars advanced out of a group that included eventual champions Costa Rica and eked out perennial Gold Cup participants Guatemala.
Mork was not part of that tournament, but followed from afar his home in Sebastopol, Calif., and is plenty familiar with the star performers from that run: prolific forward Deon McCauley (at right, who trialed earlier this year with the Portland Timbers and the LA Blues of USL PRO) and veterans like goalkeeper Shane Orio and defender Elroy Smith.
This particular set of 23 players – which he’s only been coaching directly since April – is arguably the biggest long shot in the Gold Cup, something Mork is highly aware of. He refutes Jurgen Klinsmann’s prediction that his side will sit back and absorb pressure and says he wants his players to attack more often and maintain possession – after all, what would you expect from a coach who holds a UEFA license from his time studying in the Netherlands?
But he’s also realistic on how a team ranked 130th in the world in its first big-time international competition will do against a nine-time World Cup participant like the US. The goal is much smaller than “to humiliate the United States,” as federation president Ruperto Vicente colorfully boasted.
“To try to advance out of our group,” Mork said of his squad. “They’re to a point now where they’ve been competing. They’ve always been close to being in this competition and participating in it. It’s really reached a step now where they need to be more competitive and score more goals and win some of these games.”
And then, Mork says, he hopes that showcasing their under-the-radar talent will help his players get noticed by professional clubs here in the States.
“I think some of these guys should be playing in MLS,” he asserted. “Some of these guys could get contracts out of Belize. They should get contracts out of Belize.”
That, adds Mork, would give him his greatest sense of accomplishment in this tournament – not padding his coaching résumé or aiming for something bigger. It’s in making the players he knows well dream of something loftier, and lifting up the international sporting profile of a nation where the average income is about one-sixth of what it is in the United States.
“A lot of people there think we’re at a higher level than perhaps we are,” he said of the state of the game in Belize. “We may not be there yet, but we’re on our way. If we are there year in and year out, we’ll play the US every year.
“I’m trying to say, if we’re at that level, this is the first of many matches against the US. Is that the case? I’ll know on Wednesday morning.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.