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When Elroy Kuylen’s inch-perfect free kick soared into the upper corner and rendered Guyana’s goalkeeper completely helpless, Belize looked like they were more than capable of riding that momentum to secure both a result and just their second appearance at the Concacaf Gold Cup.
It wasn’t written in the stars, however, as Guyana found the back of the net moments before the intermission and held on for a 2-1 result to book their own place on Concacaf’s biggest stage. Belize were absolutely gutted, having come up just short of what would have been a significant accomplishment for the small Central American nation of roughly 375,000.
Like many taking to the pitch in the inaugural Concacaf Nations League, Belize have the opportunity to build on the groundwork laid in recent years and take advantage of more competitive matches than ever before; 2013 was a banner year for Belize thanks to their performance at the Copa Centroamericana, where they produced a first win in the tournament, a first semifinal appearance, and punched their ticket to the Gold Cup in the process.
Their most recent results in Nations League qualifying are a far cry from their performance in the most recent Copa Centroamericana in 2017. Matchday 1 brought with it a tremendous result for Belize as they battled Panama to a scoreless draw, but they subsequently dropped all four of their remaining matches to finish in the cellar of the competition.
A large portion of Belize’s player pool suit up for clubs domestically, but they do have a solid group with valuable experience abroad and can rely on their calmness in tough moments. No player embodies this more than 37-year-old defender Elroy Smith, Belize’s appearances leader with 57 to his name.
Meanwhile, journeyman Deon McCauley stands alone in Belizean lore as the nation’s all-time leading scorer with 23 goals in 43 caps. He has plied his trade for 10 different clubs throughout the region, and those who follow the game closely in the southeastern United States know McCauley well due to his stops at the Atlanta Silverbacks and Georgia Revolution FC.
The Houston Dynamo’s Michael Salazar will also be looking to lift his nation to new heights. The 26-year-old UC Riverside grad was drafted by the Montreal Impact in 2016 and played a considerable role in two years there, while also completing a pair of loan stints at USL clubs in Canada. His impressive scoring rate — eight goals in 12 appearances — for Rio Grande Valley FC, his most recent USL side, helped him climb the ladder to the Houston Dynamo. He made his debut just a day after signing in a U.S. Open Cup win over the Austin Bold, and he has since made seven appearances in all competitions.
79' - Second substitution of the night as Michael Salazar makes his Dynamo debut, replacing Ronaldo Peña pic.twitter.com/7YbWEH8QPv— Houston Dynamo (@HoustonDynamo) June 12, 2019
Belize will be relying on the prowess of Woodrow West in between the sticks. The 33-year-old shined throughout Nations League qualifying, amassing 20 saves in 381 minutes of play while notching a pair of shutouts in wins over the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.
Belize’s recent heartache doesn’t bode well for their League B, Group A opponents, as they will be aiming to use it as motivation to achieve promotion to League A in the next edition of the tournament. Their campaign kicks off on Thursday, September 5, with a trip to French Guinea before hosting Grenada at Isidro Beaton Stadium in Belmopan three days later. They return to action on Thursday, October 10, when they play host to St. Kitts and Nevis before the sides meet again for the return leg on the following Sunday. Their final two matches of group play come on Thursday, November 14, against French Guiana and a final trip to take on Grenada on November 17.