CONCACAF Champions League | Our Men in Guyana: Timbers Army's Shawn Levy & Steven Lenhart document Portland Timbers trip
Editor's Note: The Portland Timbers first-ever foray into the CONCACAF Champions League was an historic new frontier for the club. To help document this unique first match in Georgetown, Guyana against Alpha United FC, the club invited author and journalist Shawn Levy and photographer Steven Lenhart--both long-time Timbers Army fans--to accompany the team and document the adventure from a fan's perspective. This is their story.
You already know how it ended: 4-1, Portland Timbers over Alpha United on a muggy night at a cricket pitch in Georgetown, Guyana, a thoroughgoing victory in Portland's first-ever appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League.
But that wasn't the end-end.
The end-end went something like this: In the back of a 737 chartered for the unprecedented trip, the 18 triumphant Timbers danced, sang, joked, and even cajoled the rookie players into an impromptu “American Idol” contest that dissolved into hysterics and didn't die down until about 4 am Eastern time, a full six hours after kickoff.
It was an absolutely jubilant group: Kalif Alhassan boogieing up and down the aisle; Pa Modou Kah shouting continual encouragement to all and sundry; Jack Jewsbury filming it all on his phone and bouncing with the rhythm; the style council of Rodney Wallace and Andrew Weber stirring things up in the middle of the scene; and the younger players -- Steven Evans, Bryan Gallego, Schillo Tshuma, Taylor Peay and Alvas Powell—one of the game's stars having scored the team’s fourth goal—trying their best to belt out tunes and, generally, failing, to the unbridled laughter and delight of their older teammates.
And in the middle of it, watching goggle-eyed and a bit disbelieving, Steven Lenhart—the famed Nevets, who literally founded the Timbers Army—and me, both absolutely dumbfounded to be anywhere near the scene at all.
We were in the midst of #GuyanaAway, which, for longtime Timbers fans, was more or less paradise.
It started with an email. Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, entirely out of the blue, extended an invitation to me to join the team on a charter flight that would leave Boston on the morning after the team’s regular-season MLS match against the New England Revolution to fly directly to Guyana and then return to Portland after the Champions League fixture. Since he suspected that I had no plans to be in Foxborough for the first match, he offered to fly me there as well, and to put me up in the hotel with the team in both cities.
At first, I was so stupefied by the offer that I didn't think I should take it. It was too dreamlike, too generous, too unreal. And it was, potentially, a problem: I serve on the board of a charity that works closely with the Timbers front office, and I wanted to be sure to avoid any conflict of interest or even the appearance of one. Assured by my fellow board members that, lucky son-of-a-gun, I was in the clear, I accepted the offer gratefully. And when another seat on this remarkable journey became available to me to share, I thought almost immediately of Nevets.
Now, if you've never traveled to a Timbers away match with Nevets, you need to know a few things. For starters, he has the unfailing ability to turn up in the most remarkable places; wherever he goes, he finds someone with a story to share about the city, the home team, or some other point of genuine interest and novelty. I have no doubt that if the Timbers Army were to someday visit Rome and take a morning to see Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, Nevets would vanish from the group only to appear beside the Pontiff on his balcony, talking, inevitably, about Argentine soccer.
But he's also a professional photographer who has chronicled the rise (...and rise...and rise...) of the Timbers Army in images that are so true to the spirit of the group that the team actually used them on the 2010 season tickets in the “You Can't Fake This” campaign, featuring the kid with the green mohawk, the watermelon with the logo carved into it, etc. Not only would I be traveling with an old friend who had a knack of finding stories and characters worth knowing about, but I could have a talented shooter to chronicle the epic.
Turns out that Nevets' passport had expired, which he was able to rectify, and, with vaccinations still fresh in our arms, we set out from PDX on a Friday morning, our bags stuffed with mosquito repellent, TA scarves, voltage adapters, and whatnot, our heads filled with a sense of mystery and expectation.
#NEAway was great: about 100 TA from Portland and all over the East Coast showed up for a tailgate and a loud and raucous match that ended, disappointingly I admit, 1-1. (That Ridgy Roll tho!) But Nevets and I had endured far worse away matches before, a lot of 'em, and this one felt great because it found us amidst such a large and engaged group of TA, old friends and new, singing, laughing and supporting our boys. Back when we first met, when the Timbers were a minor league team and the TA was about 40 people, we couldn't remotely have dreamed of such a world.
And besides, it was a little hard to be disappointed in the result when, in just a few more hours, we were scheduled to show up in the hotel lobby and join the team—our team—on the journey to Guyana and the Champions League.
#GuyanaAway was, any way you wish to use the term, epic. Nevets and I would fly from Portland to Boston to Georgetown to Portland, approximately 10,000 miles, in just over 120 hours. And most of that—via the charter jet—would be in the companionship of a team the love and support of which has been one of the biggest parts of our lives for many years—15 in my case, nearly 40 in Nevets'. In fact, the extended proximity to the team was, in a lot of ways, as remarkable for us as the idea of spending time in Guyana.
When you travel with a team you are constantly reminded that they are, indeed, a team. They dress in matching wardrobe (with the notable exception of their shoes), and their shirts, pants, hats, jackets, backpacks, and luggage are all marked identically with Timbers logos and the logos of some sponsors. They dress casually, but they are unmistakably a unit – and, for that matter, unmistakably a sports team.
The sense of a team dynamic goes deeper than just clothing. The cohort traveling to Guyana included a diverse group from the Americas, Africa and Oceania, athletes at varied places in the trajectories of their lives and careers. But they bore themselves clearly as comrades, polite with outsiders but keeping mainly to the collective unit, dining together, shopping and sightseeing together, laughing together, and, occasionally, huddling in serious conversation together.
They are clearly equals, but, as in any group, there are subtle hierarchies within the squad. Jack Jewsbury, for instance, who captained against Alpha United and is by far the most veteran Timber of the traveling squad, bears himself among his teammates with an easy solidity and a genial cool, sitting in on video games and card games, forming a natural touchstone for most everyone in the group as they mill about lobbies and airport lounges, occupying a seat in what is obviously the command center of the players' end of the charter 737. He doesn't scream it out, not a bit, but you can see clearly that he is the calm core of the living mass of Timbers.
Pa Modou Kah, on the other hand, is without any doubt the ringleader, eagerly greeting newcomers in his jolly basso, shouting “All aboard!” as the jet takes off from Boston, taking video of sleeping teammates, and, more ambitiously, shepherding a coterie of accomplices onto the tarmac for more elaborate a video shoot when the plane stops to refuel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His energy injects life into a long day of flying, and it is positively infectious. Such is his cheerful magnetism that even Jack Jewsbury hops off the plane in San Juan to take part in the video, only to—ever the wise veteran—return within moments, declaring the Caribbean air far too hot and muggy for horseplay.
That brief stopover was our first sojourn in the tropics, but we would soon enough have a more substantial experience.
First we had to wrap our heads around Guyana, which is part of CONCACAF even though it sits on the South American land mass, wedged between Venezuela and Suriname on the northern coast of South America, with Brazil massed below it to the south. After centuries of colonial rule, chiefly British, it transformed from British Guiana, to use the colonial spelling, to an independent nation in 1966, retaining English as its official language (and keeping its ties to the Caribbean strong). It has some 750,000 inhabitants—and, it is said, more than that number of expatriates, especially in the USA—and covers some 83,000 square miles, roughly the size of Idaho. A full third of the population lives in the capital, Georgetown, and the next-largest city, Linden, has about 40,000 inhabitants – more or less the same as Lake Oswego. Most of Guyana is jungle, including the massive and gorgeous Kaieteur Falls, about four times higher than Niagara. The most famous Guyanans in the global popular culture are the musician Eddy Grant and the actress CCH Pounder. And if you know anything about the country at all, it's probably to do with the notorious Jonestown and the mass suicide of American religious cultists in 1978, which it would certainly be impolite to discuss while a guest in the country.
Georgetown is, technically, a world capital, but it isn't very large – some 57 square miles – and it is, quite clearly, a developing city. The downtown streets are bustling, noisy and littered, there are few sidewalks or shaded areas, and there are far more small mom-and-pop businesses than there are chain stores, which might be considered a blessing if those enterprises seemed more a sign of commercial independence than a sign of economic limitations, which, alas, is how they appear. It is exactly the noisy, vibrant, pulsing setting you'd imagine: crazy taxis (driving on the left: yikes!), makeshift street vendors, booming music, tiny restaurants featuring Indian and Caribbean specialties, and buildings painted in every color of the big crayon box.
There are very few edifices of more than two stories tall in Georgetown, and the most beautiful of these are Victorian-era structures built by the British before the dawn of the 20th century and still in use today as courts, government centers, and museums. The Stabroek Market, teeming underneath a large clock tower, is one such spot, a hive of greengrocers, poulterers, butchers, fishmongers, tailors, cobblers, and dry goods vendors built on a rickety pier near the mouth of the Demerara River. Even more impressive is St. George's Cathedral, a massive clapboard structure said to be one of the tallest all-wood churches in the world. The locals insist it's the tallest, and it may or may not be, but it's certainly memorable, a plain but grand building that occupies an entire city block and could stand proudly beside great churches in Northern Europe and New England, particularly inside, where the stark but beautiful design, cool air, and memorial plaques dating back to the 1800s impart an aura of sober Old World piety that's hard to imagine in the midst of the color, noise and tumult of a modern South American city.
The European role in Georgetown's origins can literally be seen in the city plan. Outside of St. George's, the center of the city forms a grid, more or less, which makes it fairly easy to navigate, even when you wander, as Nevets and I did, in search of some sign of Alpha United supporters. We were told of a street—indeed, of a specific block—where there might be some presence of the club, which, having won a string of league championships and been in the CONCACAF Champions League previously, certainly ought to be visible in its hometown.
In the heat of an equatorial afternoon, we headed toward this mythic spot to see if there was some sort of Alpha United clubhouse, maybe, or a pub where the club's supporters might congregate. This mission took us, literally, off the map that our hotel had provided us, a tangent the very thought of would have tested the blood pressure of the former CIA man whom the Timbers had hired to accompany the team for the trip—for kidnappings and whatnot, as he explained back in Boston—leading me to question seriously what the heck I had signed myself up for.
As it happened, the players virtually never left the well-secured grounds of the hotel, thus rendering the security expert's task quite easy. And, as it happened, the streets of Georgetown felt perfectly safe for two wandering Timbers fans wanting to say hello to our Alpha United counterparts in the name of friendship and harmony through the love of the Beautiful Game.
But we weren't so lucky. We did find our way to our destination on the (perfectly straight) Bent St., and even to the appropriate block (passing a prison in order to get there; Hello!), but there were only hints that Alpha United may have had any sort of roots in the area. Two young men, a chatty one in a pink shirt and his nearly-silent friend on a bike, told us that Alpha, originally named Kingston United, did, indeed, hail from the district, and had drawn many players from that very stretch of road; one house that he pointed to could, he said, claim two generations of Alpha players. But, like virtually every other Guyanan soccer fan we met, he evinced little enthusiasm for the home team and lamented the low state of the sport in his city and nation.
“In Guyana,” he explains, “the rich people are all interested in cricket, and football is left for the poor people.”
Rather than tell us about the current Alpha squad, in fact, he was much more eager to talk about Jurgen Klinsmann's failure to include Landon Donovan on the U. S. national team for this summer's World Cup.
The same went for a taxi driver whom we met the next day and who was filled with excitement for football, even as he despaired about its place in Guyanese culture. “Here, football is an amateur sport,” he said. “There's no money and there's corruption and most of the people don't care about it.” Like our friends on Bent St., he was puzzled by the Donovan exclusion, and he knew quite a lot about MLS players: truly footy-mad.
But these fellows were, by far, the exceptions. I've traveled all over Europe and South America and, for that matter, the U. S., and I've never seen so few signs of the world's most popular game in a city of anywhere near Georgetown's size. In the course of 10 or 12 hours out and about, I saw not quite a half-dozen soccer jerseys – a pair of Barcelona’s, a Chelsea, a Real Madrid, and a Manchester City. And among the many folks with whom Nevets and I spoke, only a handful were even slightly aware that the Timbers were in town or, indeed, that Alpha United were in the Champions League.
But cricket? Oh my the Guyanese love their cricket. There are small and big cricket grounds throughout the city, there are kids playing cricket in schoolyards, there is the Everest Cricket Club, right near the Atlantic Ocean, where Nevets and I took refreshment and shade in the cool air of the trophy room and clubhouse. The local newspapers didn't make much of the Timbers/Alpha match until the day itself, but cricket was the subject of at least a half-dozen articles each day in each publication I perused. The ground in which the match would be played, Providence Stadium, was built for the 2007 Cricket World Cup and has, like Portland's Providence Park, an old-time feel and intimacy. Its cottage-style ends and grassy standing area and curlicue stairways are charming, yes, but it is undeniably a cricket ground, with a large grassless crease where the bowlers and batters square off and a generally harder feel to its turf than you find on most soccer fields. Quite a few people were chagrined at the idea of such an important match being played on such a surface; but for most Guyanans, I suspect, the real concern was what all those soccer cleats would do to the turf at their nation's top stadium.
And speaking of Timbers staffers: while most of us fans worry about the starting XI and the seven reserves in a match, the machinery behind the club is almost as large—another Timbers Army, in a sense. Along the way on this trek are general manager Gavin Wilkinson, head coach Caleb Porter, of course, two assistant coaches, three trainers, two doctors, a masseuse, and least five other key public relations, digital/social media and player relations staffers, including, most importantly, Sam Younie, the famed Sam the Kit Man, who is in charge of a couple dozen huge equipment bags and an array of gear and necessities unique to a trip to a land where you can't quite trust the tap water.
Along with cleats and kits and rain gear and medical supplies for all contingencies (including full-on surgery) and a large bag of balls different from the one the Timbers normally play with in MLS (the Champions League is sponsored by Nike), the Timbers are traveling with bottled water, Gatorade, gummy Lifesavers, and other small quality-of-life items, and it's up to Sam to keep it all organized and handy. His hotel room—the only one in the team hotel, it seems, which can't be made ice cold with air conditioning—is piled waist-high with gear, including a dazzling rainbow of football boots with cleats for any conceivable surface or conditions—a good thing, it turns out, when the sky dumps rain in a near-biblical monsoon on the morning of game day and leaves everyone wondering what in the world that cricket pitch will look like.
As it turns out, the rain abates and the pitch, though not pretty, drains well and may even have benefited from a bit of softening-up.
Lit up, Providence Stadium is quite lovely, but it becomes clear as kickoff approaches that there won't be much atmosphere in the stands (oh how Nevets and I were hoping for even a small group of supporters to sing with and against!). Counting generously, there were perhaps 3,500 souls on hand, at an average ticket price of $1000 Guyanan – or $5 U.S. They would rouse when Alpha was pushing up the pitch, but they mainly murmured, and you could easily make out the on-field chatter and hear an occasional bit of bone-crunching from the stands. It was a quiet night.
As it turns out, a crowd of that size is pretty typical for Alpha, which is a very successful club but not entirely well-loved among Georgetown's soccer fans. In what is essentially a semi-pro league, Alpha has a reputation for big-spending, gobbling up promising local talent but relying on higher-priced imported players in the first team. They win, yes, but they do so, in the view of some Georgetown sportswriters, at the expense of the sport itself in Guyana keeping other squads from rising by denying them quality players and then bringing in outsiders to do the actual winning.
Alpha are a good side though, defending their home soil with scrap and fire, fair but hard, skilled in flashes, and, it's important to note, gracious hosts: head coach Wayne Dover, known as Wiggy for his long dreadlocks, was waiting at the hotel to greet Caleb Porter as the Timbers' buses rolled into town behind a police escort on Sunday night.
Wiggy might have wished for one of those buses during the match to park in front of a net that was under fire all night long. Four Timbers goals came from four players—Steve Zakuani, Maxi Urruti, Fanendo Adi, and Alvas Powell—and if the Timbers were given an extra, oh, 12 inches to divide among three or four other shots, the tally would have doubled. It was one of the team's best nights of finishing all year.
That said, the goal of the match was the blistering strike from Alpha's Barbosa Murillo, a 30-plus-yard free kick that hit Portland's goal frame two and maybe even three times before finding the inside of the side netting. Keeper Andrew Weber played it as well as anyone could, but it was the kind of goal that, if it had been scored in Brazil a few weeks ago, would have been among the very best of the World Cup. Sometimes, even if it hurts, you've just got to tip your hat and acknowledge a job well done.
On the flight back home, nobody is overly stung by Alpha's one bit of dazzling good fortune. There are a couple of celebratory beverages, lots of singing, dancing, and laughs, and refueling stops in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Houston, Texas.
There is one touching moment to the festivities: Pa Modou Kah (who else?) raises a glass and offers a toast to Jack Jewsbury, Kalif Alhassan, and Rodney Wallace, the three players on board who have been with the Timbers since the club joined MLS. Everyone cheers heartily, and you realize what a milestone it is for these players to reach the Champions League and represent their club and community on such a high level -- not to mention so successfully.
By 1:30 pm Wednesday – about 74 hours after taking off from Boston – the traveling squad is back in Portland, the best airport on earth to come home to, as we all know, and the focus is on Sunday's match with Seattle. Sam Younie distributes the personal luggage, friends and family arrive with rides home, and Nevets and I stand in the sun, the last two to leave, shaking our heads and grinning like idiots.
In a way, it's impossible to believe what we've just lived through: two Timbers matches on two continents in a handful of days, wanderings through a nation that neither of us had any concept of before the Champions League groups were announced, conversations deep into the night with coaches, casual encounters with favorite players, and the continual sense that, as representatives of the Timbers Army, we were valued by the team and the front office as equal partners in the remarkable experience of the PTFC.
It was, we agreed, the trip of a lifetime.
And we feel uncommonly lucky that those lifetimes should be ours.
Shawn Levy is a Portland author and journalist and a former capo with the Timbers Army. He sits on the board of Operation Pitch Invasion, a charity formed by the Timbers Army and dedicated to building, restoring and maintaining soccer fields in Portland's parks and schools.
Steven Lenhart, whose images illustrate this story, is a Portland photographer whose images have appeared in gallery shows about soccer fan culture around the world. His work can be seen at www.sdlenhart.com. And, yes, he really did start the Timbers Army.