If Ian Mork was still a senior at Wichita North he would turn on the TV and root hard for the United States men’s national soccer team when it faces Belize on Tuesday in the Gold Cup.
His allegiances are much different now.
Not only will Mork be hoping for his own country to lose at Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field, he will be actively trying to defeat the Americans as the opposing team’s head coach.
It is one of the most peculiar scenarios in soccer — one his friends and family have been slow to accept — but the 41-year-old Wichita native, who now works as a youth soccer trainer, scout and coach in the San Francisco area, is ready.
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“It’s the beautiful part about the game, the passion that is involved,” Mork said in a phone interview. “But I imagine it being no different than a coach from Wichita State getting a chance to go coach at KU. When he coaches against Wichita State, he is going to be with KU at that moment.
“It’s the same for me. I am with the team I am with right now. The opponent, I can’t carry any of that emotional connection with me. It is obviously a very unique situation, but my heart is with the Belize team right now. The players are very competitive. They want to beat the U.S., and so do I.”
That won’t be an easy task. Belize is considered a heavy underdog.
The Central American nation, with a population of approximately 310,000, has a national team filled with amateurs that work day jobs ranging from police officers to teachers. Its FIFA world ranking is 130. Compare that to the 22nd-ranked United States, which utilizes a roster filled with professionals and plays all Gold Cup games on home soil, and you can understand why Mork labels Tuesday’s matchup as “David vs. Goliath.”
Even though the United States won’t be at full strength while its top performers take a rest following World Cup qualifiers, it has several advantages. Mork hopes his past knowledge of the team and his Friday scouting trip to the U.S. friendly against Guatemala will work to his advantage.
“It is a very impressive team,” Mork said. “You have a lot of players who have been with the national team in the past. They are proven veterans. They are competing to earn a spot on the starting team that is in World Cup qualifying. You are going to see a very motivated group.
“On the team chemistry side, hopefully that is where we might have a little more unity. Our group of players has been together longer than they have. I think they are going to be very difficult. The expectations in Belize are really high, but you have to be realistic. We have to try to keep them close and hopefully surprise them.”
Mork is hopeful Belize can perform well against the United States, Cuba and Costa Rica. His goal for the Gold Cup is to finish as one of the top eight teams in group play and advance to the knockout round.
Belize has little history in the Gold Cup, but it does have experience on the big stage. Mork previously coached Belize in two World Cup qualifying games against Mexico in 2008. The first was played in front of 50,000 in Houston, and the game was tied 0-0 at half. Mexico pulled away for a 2-0 victory, but Mork was proud of the way his team handled the pressure and atmosphere associated with a big game.
Things didn’t go nearly as well in the rematch, with Mexico winning a laugher at home. But Mork said his players weren’t properly compensated then, and entered the game out of practice and distracted. Those issues have since been resolved, and Mork is hoping for more at the Gold Cup.
“These guys are top amateur players, so a little bit of money is a big deal for them,” Mork said. “They also have experience on the world stage, which is huge for a small nation. What we need to adjust to now is all the travel. Some players haven’t spent a lot of time in the U.S. They will be excited just to be here. The U.S. players are used to that lifestyle. That will be a challenge, but our group is very united and has what you have to have to compete at this level.”
Mork feels comfortable with his team, because he has spent a great deal of time with its players. After finishing a playing career that featured a state championship at North — “we were the first team outside Kansas City to win one,” Mork proudly says — a stint with the Wichita Wings and time overseas, Mork found himself helping youth players in Belize as a coach.
Some of those players are now on the national team. He knows their games inside and out. He thinks they are technically strong players, capable of competing with the top teams in the Gold Cup. He hopes they can also be tactically strong when the games begin.
Mork is optimistic about what his team can accomplish. At best, he will guide them to the Gold Cup quarterfinals, where anything can happen. At worst, it will be a fun string of games.
His parents, who live in Wichita, will be in attendance wearing Belize colors. But even they might feel conflicting emotions on Tuesday.
“They will be in Belize shirts, I’m sure they will,” Mork said. “But my dad says he might wear a United States jersey underneath.”