PORTLAND – Jurgen Klinsmann knows what to expect from Belize.
“We know them,” the U.S. national team coach said. “We know their names. We did our homework.”
As for all other observers? The Jaguars will be a surprise.
Central America's smallest nation, not even 9,000 square miles worth snuggled between Mexico and Guatemala, has never qualified for the Gold Cup. In fact, it had never won a game in the Copa Centroamericana, which serves as the qualifying process from the region.
But a 2-1 win over Nicaragua, with Deon McCaulay scoring in stoppage time, ushered the tiny nation into the most recent edition of the Gold Cup. The nation celebrated with a motorcade through Belize City to welcome the players back.
Their first opponent: the United States. Belize (312,000 per a 2010 census) has roughly a 10th the population of the USA (313.9 million), which hosts the biennial event.
One U.S. citizen will be rooting for Belize at least. Coach Ian Mort hails from Kansas and coached in the lower leagues before landing in Belize. In fact, U.S. Soccer also employs him.
“My duties include scouting the youth national teams mainly in the Development Academy program, within the U.S.,” Mort said. “It's scouting players for the youth national teams.”
On his roster, Mort can count on three professional players. The rest have part-time jobs to support themselves. Most work for the police. Two – Trevor Lennen and Lennox Castillo – are on the Dragon Squad, roughly equivalent to SWAT.
The best-known players are Shane Orio, a goalkeeper for Marathon in Honduras, and Deon McCaulay. The Beimopan Bandits striker scored 11 goals in eight World Cup qualifiers during Belize's unsuccessful campaign for Brazil 2014. He still leads the CONCACAF region.
On Tuesday Orio and McCaulay will come up against Landon Donovan, who is the Gold Cup's all-time leading scorer with 13.
Mort was in San Diego to watch the U.S. friendly against Guatemala. Donovan scored his 50th and 51st international goals to lead the Yanks to a 6-0 win.
“We really have a lot of respect for this team we're going to play,” Mort said. “They're all top professionals. We're top amateurs.”
The team can't even cover the costs of playing in the tournament. A local telethon raised nearly $60,000, local communities hosted barbeque fundraisers and Nike donated uniforms. The team still needs about $25,000 and is accepting donations.
Another partially amateur team is giving Belize inspiration. Martinique, an overseas department of France, beat Canada 1-0 in the opening match of the 2013 Gold Cup. Fabrice Reuperne, 38, scored in stoppage time.
Belize took note.
“They watched it and I think it's important for us to see that on any given day a team from what would be considered a lower level of play can win a game,” Mort said. “We were kind of hoping to save that David versus Goliath story for when we played the U.S., but I'm happy for them. It's probably given our team more confidence.”
The lure of perhaps the biggest upset in Gold Cup history and the bond that comes from approaching a nearly insurmountable challenge spur on the Jaguars.
“The reason why we qualified and reached this point is because the group was unified. We were together, we were one family,” the 32-year-old Orio said. “There's not only one Shane. When I play I see 11 Shanes. There's not only one Elroy Smith. When I look on the field I see 11 Elroy Smiths. If I see 11 Shanes, that means that if I give the other Shane a pass, I'll give him a good pass, because I'm giving myself a pass. That's the mentality that we have.”
So what if Belize pull off the unthinkable and topple the United States in Portland? Would Mort find himself in hot water with his other employer, U.S. Soccer?
“I'm hoping to get a raise,” Mort joked.
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