It would be difficult to make a more resounding debut than Annapolis Blues FC did Saturday night.
A sea of blue replica jerseys filled the stands at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the fledgling franchise’s first home game. There were wide swaths of fans wearing commemorative scarves and pockets of the crowd waving special flags.
It was a special night on and off the pitch as the Annapolis Blues made semipro soccer history.
Standout striker Jacob Murrell scored a goal and assisted another as the Blues rallied to beat visiting FC Frederick, 4-2, on a chilly night in Annapolis. Anne Arundel County products scored the go-ahead and clinching goals for the Blues, who remained unbeaten four games into their inaugural season.
The Blues’ home opener set a National Premier Soccer League attendance record, drawing 8,368 fans to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in a remarkable show of support for a club on the fourth tier of the American soccer pyramid.
Saturday’s game surpassed the previous regular-season record of 7,410 set by Detroit FC in 2016. The same club drew 7,533 fans for a national semifinal in 2017.
Both marks paled in comparison to what the Blues managed to do right out of the gate.
“We knew we had a shot at the record, but we never imagined we would blow it out of the water,” Blues general manager Fred Matthes said. “It’s simply amazing. I was walking around before the game and people were thanking me for putting this team together. It’s great to see so many people totally into this team and the game of soccer.”
Lead owner Michael Hitchcock enjoyed the scene from the 15th row of the stands, sitting inconspicuously along a railing alongside a couple of investors. Hitchcock has full or part ownership in 14 minor league soccer franchises, including seven others in the NPSL, and was almost left speechless by the support for a first-year franchise.
“Some of the most successful teams in minor league soccer have been doing it for 20 years and can’t get this kind of crowd,” Hitchcock said. “Ultimately, it’s all about the fans. So, to see the community come together is incredible. This scene tonight was as good as you’ll see at any sporting event. It was an amazing, magical night.”
As Hitchcock spoke, fans crowded the railing overlooking the field clamoring for autographs from Blues players, most of whom are currently playing in college. A long line of youngsters snaked through what the organization dubbed “Autograph Alley” with the first 500 receiving a mini-soccer ball.
“It’s been two years of really hard work by a lot of talented people. We always say it takes a village to launch a new franchise and fortunately, we have one heck of a village here in Annapolis. The community has really embraced the team,” Hitchcock said. “We’re humbled and honored to represent Annapolis.”
Murrell was The Sun’s Baltimore All-Metro Player of the Year as a senior at McDonogh and helped lead Georgetown to the second round of the NCAA Tournament this past spring. Playing before a crowd of 8,368 was a new experience for the Forest Hill resident.
“This is about 5,000 fans more than I’ve ever played in front of,” Murrell said. “It’s really strange because when you’re on the field, if you’re not within 5 yards of someone you can’t hear them. It is definitely difficult to communicate.”
Murrell was responsible for sending the fans into a frenzy when he scored in the 29th minute to tie the score at 1. Murrell had his back to the goal and a defender draped all over him when he controlled a pass then immediately pivoted and headed toward the goal. He dribbled twice then used the left foot to send the ball into the far corner, easily beating the goaltender.
Murrell was almost single-handedly responsible for most of the home team’s scoring chances in the first half. He fired one shot right at starting goalie Jonah Valmote then sent two others, including a bicycle kick, flying over the crossbar.
“Jacob is a special talent. It’s easy to get caught up with his goals, but his overall play is what impresses me. His linkup play, his pressing, his movement,” Blues coach Colin Herriot said. “The best thing is that he’s a humble kid that just wants to get better.”
Forward John Andrew Eskay, an Urbana High graduate who played at High Point, scored both goals for FC Frederick. Eskay’s goal in the 49th minute, off a superb crossing pass, put the visitors ahead 2-1 and that lead held for another 23 minutes.
The home crowd was getting restless as the clock steadily ticked toward 90. Veteran center back Elton De Oliveira Santos reenergized the audience by burying a free kick over the wall of defenders and into the far corner of the goal to tie the score at 2 in the 72nd minute.
Five minutes later, reserve forward Gordon Bernlohr electrified the fans by scoring the go-ahead goal. Murrell delivered a beautiful through ball to Bernlohr, who pounded a 10-yard shot past the diving arms of backup goalie Gonzalo Bartoli.
It was a thrilling moment for Bernlohr, a Severna Park graduate who plays at Catholic University. He came on as a substitute late in the second half and immediately made an impact.
“I’m trying to make the most of my moments on the field. If I’m going to get limited minutes, I want to go really hard and do what I can to contribute to this team,” Bernlohr said.
Bernlohr celebrated the goal by ripping off his jersey ala Brandi Chastain at the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
“Actually, I’ve never done that before. When there are 8,000 people watching you’ve got to do something,” said Bernlohr, who grew up playing youth sports in the Annapolis area. “It’s really a dream come true. As soon as I heard that Annapolis was getting a minor league team, I wanted to be part of it. It’s awesome to see so many people come out and those fans really gave us a lift tonight. It’s incredible to be able to play at this level in front of so many people.”
Edgewater resident Jackson Ruckman, who also came off the bench, scored the clinching goal just two minutes later. Bernlohr sent a strong crossing pass from the corner that bounced off an FC Frederick defender.
Ruckman pounced on the rebound and used a half-volley to drive the ball into the back of the net. Herriot was pleased with the lift provided by Bernlohr and Ruckman off the bench and noted they are among many Maryland players on the roster.
“We wanted to build a team in which most of the kids are from Maryland and played their youth and high school soccer here. All these young fans can relate to these players,” he said. “We feel like we built a deep roster and will need everyone to contribute at some point. That is what happened tonight.”
Annapolis FC beat had beaten FC Frederick, 5-0, on May 21 at St. John’s Catholic Prep. Coach Rob Ryerson had his troops prepared and fired up for the rematch with the visitors outplaying the home team for long stretches.
“There are definitely some areas of the game we need to improve upon. We’re a brand new team so there are going to be some obstacles at certain times,” Herriot said. “This was a big mentality game. All the pressure was on our side because of the crowd and the result from two weeks ago. All in all, I think we handled it pretty well. I was happy about the performance.”
The Blues are now 3-0-1 and alone atop the Mid-Atlantic Conference of the East Division of NPSL, which is not a surprise to Murrell.
“From day one, [the coaches] implemented a style of play they want and we try to impose that on other teams,” he said. “Tonight, we struggled a bit with the game plan, but in the second half we picked it up. Overall, it’s not really surprising because of the caliber of talent we have on this roster.”