Hard-core soccer devotees will be glued to their television screens tonight when the United States opens its CONCACAF Gold Cup run against tiny Belize, but at least one Sonoma County fan will be pulling for the underdog.
Don't bother shaking a fist at Ian Andrew Mork. He isn't unpatriotic. He happens to coach the Belizean team.
Mork would like nothing better than to mark Belize's Gold Cup debut with a victory over his motherland at Portland's Jeld-Wen Field. He also understands the odds of that happening are slightly better than Grenada holding off the U.S. in a military skirmish.
"I have one (player) who works in a hardware store in Belize," Mork said. "I have another guy who's a grade-school teacher, several are on the police force, a couple are tour guides. And then I have some students."
The Belizean team has no regular access to physical therapy, no on-staff dietician and no access to indoor facilities during the rainy season. Mork, 41, knew the odds were stacked against him when he took the job in March, but couldn't pass up the opportunity to develop a Gold Cup team.
Just qualifying for the tournament was an accomplishment for Belize, which didn't play internationally until 1995. To open against the host country — both are part of Group C, along with Costa Rica and Cuba — is icing on the cake, for the players and for their American coach.
"The draw against the U.S. is kind of a dream for these guys," Mork said. "A game like that draws a lot of attention. A lot of these players have aspirations to play professionally. And that in itself would make it a success, if they were able to sign contracts."
Mork grew up in Wichita, Kan., and played briefly for professional soccer teams in Wichita and the Netherlands after graduating from Sangamon State University in Illinois (now known as the University of Illinois at Springfield).
He moved to California in 1995 to help run some soccer camps, discovered Sonoma County and has made it his home base ever since.
One of his earliest contacts here was Andrew Ziemer, one of the brothers — along with Chris, Marcus and Benjamin — who together form the backbone of Redwood Empire youth soccer. Mork was an assistant under Marcus Ziemer for two years with the Sonoma State men's team, and has helped run the Ziemers' camps and club teams for nearly two decades. He currently lives in Sebastopol.
But even while staking roots in wine country, Mork was building a connection to Belize, the small, multi-ethnic nation known less for soccer than for its extensive barrier reef.
It was a college roommate, a Belizean native named Rene Montero, who got him interested. Mork was headed to play in Costa Rica in 2000 when Montero convinced him to reroute to Belize. Mork spent one year as player-coach on a Belizean club team and another as head coach.
It wasn't an entirely foreign experience for Mork, who traveled extensively with his family in Mexico and Guatemala as a kid, and found soccer to be a common language.
"I always had more of a global view of the game," Mork said. "I saw these people who didn't have much, but they always had a football at their feet. I always saw that the game was so much bigger than, obviously, growing up in Kansas. I connected with the diehards over there."