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."

Beginning in 2004, he spent 2? years as technical director for what is now called the Football Federation of Belize, coaching the youth national teams and serving as an assistant on the men's team. He coached the men's team for a stint in 2008. So when the Belizean national coach resigned earlier this year, Mork was not a far-fetched choice to replace him.

Mork went to Belize for a week in April to help set the player pool and put together a training plan, came back for about 10 days in May and returned in June for full-time duties. He saw immediate results, guiding a scoreless tie at Guatemala in a FIFA-recognized "friendly."

"That's Belize's neighbor, and there's always a big dispute on the political side. They still claim Belize as a state," Mork said. "So that was a real proud moment for the Belizean people. We had gone over and tied them on their grounds. So that was a good result for us."

A victory over the U.S. tonight would be another order of magnitude, of course. American soccer fans tend to rue their team's international standing. FIFA currently ranks the U.S. at No. 22, not an elite position, but a far cry from Belize at No. 130 — just ahead of Rwanda and Sudan but a little below Moldova and Lebanon. And that's close to an all-time high for Belize, which bottomed out at 201st in 2007 and was 164th as recently as January.

Belize has about 335,000 people. It's smaller than Wichita.

Only two Belizean players have international club experience — both play in Honduras — and another attends UC Riverside. Many of the Americans have Major League Soccer or European experience. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is holding most of his top players out of the Gold Cup. Still, his squad includes the likes of DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, whose 13 career Gold Cup goals are an all-time record.

Mork is signed on with the Belizean team only through the Gold Cup. Afteward, he will return to his regular jobs — director for player development for the NorCal Premier Soccer League, scout for US Soccer and lead trainer for Ballistic United Soccer Club of Pleasanton. Mork doesn't want to give up those positions, but said he would be interested in a "longer-term, part-time relationship" with Belize. In the meantime, he has a giant to slay.

Mork's parents will be in Portland, wearing the national colors of Belize. All four Ziemer brothers will be there, too, doing their best to disentangle their allegiances.

"If it were a World Cup qualifier, I would be cheering 100 percent for the U.S. so they could qualify for Brazil," Chris Ziemer said. "Given the outcome doesn't affect the U.S.'s ability to go to Brazil (in 2014), I'm hoping for a great game. A Belize victory would be monumental, and a U.S. win would be fun, too, as long as coach Mork's troops represent."


You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.