CCL

CONCACAF Champions League | Peace in Our Time: How an MLS fan (Seattle Sounders) helped Portland Timbers’ digital media in Guyana

Showing a shared love for the Beautiful Game, Joel Breems helps Timbers digital staff in Guyana

Providence Stadium, Guyana Away, 8.19.14

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Brian Costello

“Hey, Boss!” yelled Joel Breems to a field staffer on a steamy evening in Providence Stadium in Guyana.

A few stadium workers turned their heads. One pointed at himself as if to say, “Me?”

“We need some power up here!” said Breems.


 The press terrace with cricket scoreboard above 

Within minutes, a power cord came snaking out of a stadium operations window and down to the stark press area. I grabbed it, improvised some movement of folding tables and chairs, and then plugged it into my awaiting laptop.

Standing there, clad in a Seattle Sounders kit wearing no CONCACAF credentials at all, Breems turned to me and said, “I’m never this authoritative back home.”

With the help of this new friend—a Seattle native who at one point had season tickets to the Sounders and Chicago Fire at the same time and now finds himself working in Guyana—I was able to get power and a wifi network set up with minutes to spare to help digitally broadcast the story of the Portland Timbers first-ever CONCACAF Champions League game, a 4-1 victory over Alpha United FC.

Getting to this point, though, was an adventure that was assisted by a global love for MLS and the Beautiful Game.

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Writing stories, producing videos, creating social media posts…these are all part and parcel of a modern sports team digital media platform. Being able to create content on the fly and in real time requires flexibility and a fair amount of technology with the key element to deliver it all being, well, the internet.

However, on the Timbers’ inaugural CCL trip to Georgetown, Guyana, access to the internet was far from a sure thing. I had heard from CONCACAF colleagues in advance that the stadium did not have internet capability for Alpha’s first CCL game against Honduras’ CD Olimpia in early August.

Knowing this, I attempted to plan accordingly prior to the trip and built in coverage contingencies for the night of the match.

General infrastructure in the country is limited and while we had a decent plan in place for the game with the equipment we had, it was far from a sure thing with much of it dependent on unforeseen variables that could alter at any time.

At the very least, the plan required electrical power. Electricity in Guyana runs on the same voltage as the U.S. so no converters are needed. And yet, three hours prior to kickoff, as I walked into the unique cricket stadium’s makeshift press area—a terraced deck connected to the stadium operations building—I didn’t even have that.

Until Breems arrived with the experience and know-how of a local.

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I met Joel Breems via embedded Timbers Army writer Shawn Levy the night before at an Indian restaurant known as the Maharaja Palace.

The team had brought Levy and fellow Timbers Army photographer Steven Lenhart with us to help document the journey from a supporters’s perspective.

In advance of the international voyage, Levy had tried researching Guyana online to find soccer supporters. Stumbling through Reddit—the massive social media message board—Levy found this post on the /r/timbers thread:

Levy jumped at the source and began emailing back and forth about soccer, the country and the game. “hopfan” turned out to be Breems, an American working in Georgetown. They agreed to meet up for dinner in Georgetown after we all arrived in country.

On the strength of those second-hand digital interactions was how I found myself crammed into a ramshackle taxi with Levy, Lenhart, and fellow Timbers social media colleague Marc Kostic roaring out to a restaurant in eastern Georgetown Breems had described simply as “a little wild.”

As the taxi jostled through the dark, sweltering evening to-and-fro—mere inches spared us from at least three crashes en route—I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Who was this Breems? Where were we going? What if, you know, this all turns out bad?

The taxi took a right into a three-story building lit up with more LED streamers than a disco—which was saying something considering the discos in Georgetown—and waiting in the driveway was a young blond-haired man with glasses, jeans and a Cascadia-esque t-shirt that said “Howe Sound, Squamish British Columbia.”

That was a good sign.

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Backcut Podcast: Shawn Levy & #GuyanaAway

Stuffing ourselves full of incredible Indian food—the Indo-Guyanese culture runs deep in the area back to the early 1800’s with British colonialism playing a dominant role—Breems told us how he came to the country via his wife who had secured a medical grant to help work battling infectious diseases. They sold all their possessions and headed to South America only to learn upon arrival that the grant funding dried up.

With everything having been committed to coming to Georgetown, the two re-committed themselves to the long haul. His wife took an infectious diseases government medical position while Breems, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco with a masters in nearshore restoration and environmental studies, got a job as a protected areas officer for the Guyanese government’s national park system.

This means that Breems basically takes care of Kaieteur Falls National Park:  242 square miles of pristine jungle with the central falls having a vertical drop of 741 feet—that’s four times the drop of Niagara Falls. Located approximately 134 miles as the crow flies from Georgetown (or, about 30 miles less than Portland to Seattle), a journey to Kaieteur Falls takes around 12 hours to get to over land or shorter via prop plane (the preferred option for Breems who splits his time in the city and in the park).

But after learning all that, Breems explained that he was a soccer fan with a strong belief in supporting your local club. Going to college at the University of Washington, Breems followed the Sounders in the old USL days and bought season tickets for their inaugural MLS season—it was also at that time that he became of fan of then-Sounders rookie midfielder Steve Zakuani.

After taking an environmental job in Chicago, he doubled up his season tickets with an allotment for the Fire with both accounts overlapping for a bit. He loved Toyota Park.

In short, Breems was a soccer fan. An MLS fan. He follows the league and his teams closely via MLSsoccer.com, club websites, blogs and game streams and had strong ideas about the final third of the season. His job often takes him off the grid from the city—and internet—when he has to fly out to the park, but when he returns, he devours the latest news to get back up to date.

True to his “support your local club” mantra, Breems had tried to follow Alpha United but found the Georgetown soccer support and news a bit lacking. With much of the country focused more on cricket, he could only find a few soccer paragraphs in the local papers after the games had finished and had an even harder time finding an official schedule.

He even tried calling the stadium and was told, “Come by. If the lights are on, then there’s a game.”

Not surprisingly, he was thrilled when he found out that the Timbers—Seattle rival though they may be—were coming all the way from Portland to play Alpha United right in his own transplanted home of Georgetown.

As the plates of chicken makhani grew smaller and our group’s conversation jumped from explaining the environment around the MLS All-Star Game at Providence Park to Timbers Army and Bless Field to tips on navigating Georgetown, I explained to Breems about my challenge of having reliable internet at the stadium. As the details came to the fore, the gears began turning in Breem’s mind with a local’s knowledge of the city landscape for other possible solutions.

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 Left to right: Marc Kostic, Brian Costello, Steven Lenhart,
Joel Breems. In front: Shawn Levy 

The next morning—the day of the match—my hotel room land line phone rang and I remember thinking, “Who would call me in a Guyana hotel?”

It was Breems. He explained that he had talked with a company near his office and had a line on a 4G mobile internet unit set for Guyanese network access. He wondered if I’d be interested. I could get it for just the day if need be. I gave him some budget parameters knowing that post game, we’d be packing up and heading out for the airport almost immediately.

A few emails later—courtesy of the fairly reliable hotel wifi system—Breems had secured a mobile internet hub for the day. For free. That, and he said he’d bring it to the stadium himself and then return to the company after the game.

We discussed when and how to meet pregame at the stadium for the handoff.

Breems asked, “How will you find me?”

“You’ll be the only one there wearing a Seattle Sounders kit,” I replied. “You won’t be hard to find.”

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And I was right. The Rave Green was hard to miss. Breems arrived right on time and with him in his Sounders kit and me in a Timbers team polo, the unlikely Cascadia pair got to work as I explained the current lack of electrical power in the press area.

A few friendly take-charge maneuvers from Breems later, Guyanese stadium staffers worked a power cable around as CONCACAF officials looked on with some disbelief. We plugged in the mobile device and waited.

While the ghosts in the machine did their dark magic, I looked at my watch. The Timbers team bus was set to arrive in minutes and I had to run with the camera to shoot it. Breems, still without any official credentials, stayed behind and fiddled with the device.

After capturing the players’ entrance, I raced back to the press table to find Breems gone but in his place, a pristine internet connection. Breems had already left for his seat with a few other ex-pats he had rallied to join him. As the internet hummed away into my laptop, CONCACAF staffers were already asking to share the wifi wealth. Levy, who sat next to me in the press area, was ecstatic as he madly tweeted images and observations.

We had gone from nothing/spotty internet to a fully functioning system with Breems getting it set up and running within an afternoon.

For free.

Basically because he is an extremely nice guy who loves soccer. Timbers-Sounders Cascadia rivalry aside, Breems is an MLS fan who wanted to lend a hand.

I made a point to track him down during halftime to explain my immense gratitude to him in person. He told me he had made a sign for Zakuani and held it up to cheer when the midfielder scored the first goal of the game in the 18th minute—also Zakuani’s first in a Timbers uniform. In the rush after the game, I didn’t get another chance to say a proper good bye.

Via an email reply to a heartfelt thank you I sent minutes before we took off for our return home, he wrote back:

“Seriously, it was my pleasure helping, having the chance to enjoy a game was more than enough thanks.”

And don’t think he didn’t forget about the Cascadia rivalry clash this weekend either:

“P.S. Good luck on Sunday. I have been called into the field so sadly will have to miss the game. Booo.”

Joel, we’ll make sure to get you up to speed when you get back.