By Dylan Butler
PORTLAND, OR – Belize coach Ian Mork has already graduated college, but his coaching education continues with his stiffest test yet – facing the United States in the CONCACAF Gold Cup at JELD-WEN Field on Tuesday night.
“I’m continuing my education in many ways with an opportunity like this and I’m trying to improve my own coaching philosophy and style all the time,” Mork said. “But more importantly than that is for the team. It’s a big step, a bigger stage for us. Obviously we’re playing one of the top teams in the world. We’re kind of looking at it as we’re all going to be improving after this experience no matter what happens.”
A native of Wichita, Kansas, Mork returns to the States as the man who is guiding Belize in its first Gold Cup appearance. It is a historic moment for the small Central American nation, one the coach is soaking in.
“For me, it's the team I’m with and I’m more connected to the team I’m with than any other emotions of where I’m from,” Mork said. “I’m really focused on the Belize team right now. That’s where my heart is.”
Mork’s introduction to Belize came innocently enough. His roommate at Sangamon State (now University of Illinois at Springfield) Rene Montero, is from Belize. When Mork, who played for the indoor soccer for the Wichita Wings, was looking to make the next move in his professional playing career, he was thinking Costa Rica.
Montero, though, guided him to Belize.
There he was a player-coach and in 2004 became the federation’s technical director and coach of the Belize youth teams, including many of the players who comprise the Gold Cup team.
When the Under-21 squad defeated El Salvador in the Central American Games, it was the first time Belize had won a game in a sanctioned international tournament.
Mork had a brief stint as the interim national team coach in 2008, when he replaced Jose Palmiro Salas during the World Cup qualifying campaign.
He said the biggest difference from five years ago is this Belize team is playing better. A fourth-place finish in the 2013 UNCAF Copa Centroamericana, achieved under then head coach Leroy Sherrier Lewis, booked the Jaguars a Gold Cup berth.
“Now the team is at a much higher level,” he said. “They have more experience and the unity is really impressive within this group. It’s like a family. They really battle for each other and they support each other on and off the field.”
Mork knows the odds are stacked against his team, but upsets happen. After all, on the opening day of the Gold Cup, Martinique knocked off Canada and Panama defeated two-time defending champion Mexico.
“On any given day, the David vs. Goliath story can happen and it’s 11 vs. 11 on the field,” Mork said. “But we also see it as that one in 10 time that maybe this is our moment. Belize football is starting to take some big steps and there’s going to be a point where there’s an era of footballers like we have here who really set an example for the future. It feels like this is the moment when that’s going to happen.”
Win, lose or draw, Mork said he’s hoping the first match against the United States isn’t the last.
“We’re hoping we’re going to be in the Gold Cup every time there’s a Gold Cup,” Mork said. “We’re thinking of it as this isn’t the last time we play the U.S. ... I think you’re going to see very soon, in the near future, Belize really put a mark on world football. I’m hoping it is this tournament, though.”