Something was missing when Belize opened their Russia 2018 qualifying account against the Cayman Islands. The ball seemingly did not want to go in the net. Pressure mounted over two legs and it took a late free-kick from Elroy Kuylen to seal passage through to the next round by a slim away goal. “We missed Deon,” the scorer said, clearly relieved, making no mystery about the missing link.

The Deon in question is Deon McCaulay. The 27-year-old forward is his country’s top all-time scorer. “Play him through five times and I guarantee he’ll score at least three,” Kuylen added of the national hero. Coach Jorge Nunez agreed too, hardly hesitating to heap praise on the No9. “Deon solves all of our attacking problems.”

These words carry weight. They are not just excuses from a team that underperformed. McCaulay proved it in the next round against the Dominican Republic. He scored twice on the road in the first leg and blasted home a thumping header late in the second, sparking a 5-1 aggregate win. As the coach predicted, all scoring problems were solved. With McCaulay in the team, the floodgates had opened.

Unreal influence
“Sometimes when the goals are flying in, I think to myself. ‘wait, is this really happening?’ McCaulay told in a candid interview, his voice marked by the Caribbean-inflected accent of Belize, Central America’s only English-speaking nation. “When my goals win a big game it’s almost unreal. In some ways I can’t believe it’s become so easy for me.”

Do not mistake McCaulay’s confidence for arrogance. It is not that at all. It is the sum total of years of hard work, developing what he calls “clarity” in front of goal. He exudes the clear-eyed strength of a man who dragged himself up from humble, even dangerous, beginnings.

McCaulay was born in a corner of Belize City known for drugs, gangs, guns and violence. “Football was a way out,” he said of his rough roots. But he did not drag himself out alone. There was someone to light the way. His father, David McCaulay Sr., had football, and scoring goals, in his veins.

“He scored 13 goals for the national team,” McCaulay said of his dad, beaming with a pride matched only by the father’s for his son, who is, by any measure, Belize’s best-ever player. “When I was a boy he used to bring me and my brother to the field and work us out.”

Young McCaulay watched on as his father trained with the national team, waiting patiently on the sidelines for sessions to end. Then, he got his chance to run on the pitch. His father, tired from the practice, stayed behind to show his boy the tricks of the striking trade. Where to put the ball. How to run off the shoulder of a defender. The wizardry of finding the right place at the right time.

Young McCaulay, who says he “always knew (he) would be a striker” has been hitting the net ever since. And he even hit the global headlines – with some irony – in qualifying for Brazil 2014. He scored 11 goals in as many games, including a hat-trick against Montserrat, admittedly one of the world’s lowest-ranked teams. He finished the preliminary rounds as top-scorer for the entire world, in front of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. The man from Belize laughs off the notion his talent is anywhere near those massive names. But once again he’s showing his scoring touch on the international stage, sitting second in the scorer’s charts with three goals in just two Russia 2018 outings.

Pure striker
McCaulay is a pure striker, the type pundits call natural. He is lean and fast and he moves through the channels a step ahead of any pursuer. The marked improvement in Belizean football over the last decade is, in many ways, down to the ability and strike-rate he has displayed since making his debut in 2007.

“I’ve had my eyes on him a long time. He’s got what we need,” Atlanta Silverbacks Technical Director Eric Wynalda said of McCaulay before he brought him to the team last year. The former USA star would know too – he made a habit of scoring opportunistic goals in a ten-year, 100-plus cap career.

Life in the USA’s second professional tier was not easy for McCaulay, who has scored 20 goals in 34 internationals, 13 of them in World Cup qualifying. He suffered from a hernia and failed to become a staple at the club. Now he is out of contract and back in Belize, training full-time with the national team and waiting for his next chance. A striker who can score like he does surely will not be without a home for long, however. And he knows it.

“I don’t want to jump at the first offer that comes my way,” said McCaulay, who has had trials in MLS and as far away as Greece, and holds patience up among the chief traits of a great scorer “All I can do is keep scoring goals and helping my country. From there, only good things can come.”