American Ian Mork to coach Belize against his home country
When head coach Ian Mork's Belizean soccer team faces the United States on Tuesday night in the Gold Cup, Mork will be fielding a team that includes two professional soccer players, a few policemen, a teacher and two tour guides.
Mork isn't from Belize, though. He was born in Wichita, Kan. and -- like his U.S. counterpart Jurgen Klinsmann -- he lives in California. Mork even works for the U.S. Soccer Federation part-time as a scout and considers himself a fan of the U.S. team.
Right now, though, none of that matters. For the next month, for all intents and purposes, Ian Mork is Belizean.
"The entire country of Belize is supporting us," Mork said. "They have pretty high expectations and we have to live up to that. We know the U.S. is very strong and we're a top amateur group with several professionals in the mix. That's our challenge."
It will be a challenge, with the players from colorfully named Belizean clubs such as the Belmopan Bandits and the Placencia Assassins going up against opponents who have played in top leagues around the world.
But let's put aside this David vs. Goliath narrative for a second. A more pressing question lingers.
How did the assistant director for a California youth soccer league (and part-time U.S. scout) wind up coaching Belize?
The answer starts with a 1992 conversation between a soccer coach and a lawyer Mork has still never met.
Two decades ago, Springfield, Ill. lawyer Bruce Stratton wasn't a soccer fan. But he was friends with Sangamon State's soccer coach Aydin Gonulsen, and when Stratton mentioned his upcoming trip to Belize, Gonulsen had a request.
"If you find a good soccer player, send him my way," Gonulsen told Stratton.
It could have been interpreted as a throwaway remark, but Stratton didn't take it that way.
"I thought it would be a great opportunity for some Belizean to go to the US and get an education, while getting a soccer scholarship to pay for it," Stratton said. "For a Belizean to have the opportunity to go to college in Belize would be a big, big deal. But for a Belizean to go to an American university? That would be huge."
So, upon arriving in the town of San Ignacio, Stratton started asking around. Were there any smart teenagers who were really good at soccer?
It turns out there was someone: The name Rene Montero kept coming up.
The next weekend, Stratton attended the local soccer game, asking fans to point him to Montero. At halftime, Stratton approached the field and called Montero over.
"I said 'How'd you like to go the U.S. and play soccer?'" Stratton recalled. "He said that would be really great."
A few months later, Montero traveled 1,500 miles north and was enrolled at Sangamon State (now the University of Illinois-Springfield). Ian Mork was his roommate.
"We really hit it off and had a great connection," Mork said.
After becoming key members of the team (with Stratton becoming a regular in the Sangamon State stands), the pair went their separate ways after graduation. Mork went off to play at the top amateur level in the Netherlands and San Francisco before competing in a professional indoor soccer league for the Wichita Wings.
Montero went back to Belize and become a high school science teacher. His stay in America had been such a success that Gonulsen -- to Stratton's delight -- brought in three other Belizean soccer players to study at Sangamon State in the coming years.
Despite the separation, the two friends kept in contact, and when Mork was considering moving to go play professionally in Costa Rica, Montero talked him out of it, claiming to have a better idea.
"I said, 'Who do you know in Costa Rica?'" Montero recalled. "He said, 'No one.' So I told him to come to Belize instead. I'd help get him set up."
Montero was true to his word, and Mork immediately became a player-coach for the Belmopan Bandits, a semi-pro club in Belize. Having years earlier studied under the tutelage of Dutch national team (and, later, Barcelona) assistant coach Frans Hoek, Mork thrived with the Bandits, where he was named the national coach of the year in 2001 after qualifying the team for the CONCACAF Champions Cup. From there, he served as Belize's technical director, coaching the youth national teams from 2004-06 but did not return to Belizean coaching until a visa issue left Belize's head coach Jose Palmiro Salas unable to travel to the U.S. for Belize's World Cup qualifiers in 2008.
Having settled in Northern California by then, Mork was named the team's interim coach for its two qualifiers in Mexico, one in Houston and the other in Mexico City. He brought Montero along as one of his assistant coaches.
The first game went well, with Belize holding Mexico scoreless until El Tri scored two goals in the second half (including a penalty in stoppage time). A week later the Jaguars came undone, losing 7-0 in Azteca Stadium.
Mork returned home to California doubting if he'd ever get the chance to coach during such a big game, wondering what he could have done if he had been given more notice and more of an opportunity to practice with his players.
In April, Mork finally got another call from the Football Federation of Belize. With the team having qualified for the Gold Cup for the first time in its history -- and with the tournament being held in the United States -- Mork was once again offered the job. With Mork's employers -- including the U.S. Soccer Federation -- supportive of him taking time off, Mork accepted the assignment.
Much of the team's roster is the same as that 2008 squad (10 members to be exact), and having spent the past month with the squad, Mork hopes Belize can make it out of the group stage.
Mork knows they're big underdogs, and doesn't object to a comparison between his team and the Tahitian side that appeared in the recent Confederations Cup in Brazil. ("They all think they can beat the Tahitians, but I think it would be a good game," he said.)
Montero, now a professor of biology and environmental science at the University of Belize, will once again be Mork's right-hand man.
And Stratton -- the man who connected Montero to Mork, Mork to Belize -- will be watching from Illinois.