When Michael Hitchcock decided to bring a National Premier Soccer League team to Annapolis, he knew the formula for success.
That’s because Hitchcock has done this many times before. The founding partner of Playbook Management International has worked with more than 90 professional soccer teams over the years. He owns 12 soccer clubs in the United States, including five other NPSL members.
A year-long process of establishing the club and building local connections culminates with the Annapolis Blues home opener 7 p.m. Saturday against FC Frederick at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. General manager Fred Matthes said the Blues, who now have more than 3,000 season ticket holders, are hoping to set the NPSL attendance record.
According to available records, the top attendance in league history came when Detroit FC attracted a crowd of 7,410. That figure could be in danger considering the Blues drew almost 4,000 for a preseason scrimmage.
“It was a great atmosphere and very gratifying to see so many Annapolis Blues jerseys in the crowd,” Matthes said of the exhibition game against the Philadelphia Union development squad that doubled as a benefit for the Rebuilding Together Anne Arundel County.
The process began with Hitchcock knowing it was critical to spark interest and gain support from the local community. He started by forming an ownership group that featured investors with area ties, including a pair of former Major League Soccer standouts from Maryland in Kyle Beckerman and Alex Yi.
Beckerman, a Crofton native and 2021 inductee into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame, spent 21 seasons in MLS and was a longtime member of the United States National Team.
Brandon and Caite Bartlett, Annapolis natives who own two coffee shops in the area, are among the nine ownership partners. So is Jake Iversen, a long-time Annapolitan and owner of Watermark Tours, Charters and Cruises. Adding more local flavor to the ownership group is Odenton native Dave Johnson, who was inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame for his distinguished broadcasting career.
Shortly after announcing the creation of the Annapolis soccer club, Hitchcock, Beckerman and Yi launched several initiatives designed to engage Annapolis and Anne Arundel County residents.
First, they conducted a public vote to select the team name. Response was impressive with 1,2000 supporters settling on the Annapolis Blues FC. A logo featuring a Chesapeake Bay blue crab was created and the fledgling franchise set about selling season tickets.
That process was jump-started by a promotion that offered a free Annapolis Blues jersey and commemorative scarf to the first 2,500 season ticket buyers.
“We’ve worked very, very hard to introduce ourselves to the greater Annapolis area,” Matthes said. “If you can build brand identity right away and get the local community to buy in, you’re halfway there. It’s then a matter of getting support from sponsors, local investors and ticket buyers.”
Many of the Annapolis Blues principles, notably Hitchcock and Matthes, have ties to D.C. United of Major League Soccer. Hitchcock started his MLS career as an executive with D.C. United and ended it as general manager of Dallas FC. Matthes spent 17 years with D.C. United, rising to vice president. Johnson was the television play-by-play announcer for D.C. United from its inception in 1996 until last year.
Colin Herriot, who has coached high-level youth soccer in Maryland for 15 years, was tabbed as the Blues’ inaugural coach. The Calvert County resident, who played professional soccer in his native Scotland, is the longtime director of coaching for Maryland United. Matthes said Herriot was the ideal hire because he has such strong relationships and deep connections with the youth, college and professional game in the Maryland, D.C., northern Virginia region.
Herriot was charged with putting together the 29-man roster and he capitalized on his extensive knowledge of the club soccer scene to do so. The Blues also conducted two open tryouts that attracted 160 hopefuls.
“I think the biggest challenge from the outset was identifying players that fit the style we want to play,” Herriot said. “We want to make sure we’re bringing in people with good character as well. It’s important that we have guys who represent the club the right way on and off the field.”
A majority of the roster consists of current college players seeking to sharpen their game during the spring and summer months. Among the notables are striker Jacob Murrell and midfielder Matias De Jesus, who starred at McDonogh and Loyola Blakefield, respectively.
Murrell was the leading scorer for NCAA Tournament qualifier Georgetown last season, while De Jesus plays for perennial powerhouse Maryland.
“Jacob is an outstanding team player with excellent instincts who is a really strong finisher,” Herriot said. “Matias is an extremely technical player with a high IQ who is very good on the ball.”
Six of the collegiate players are Anne Arundel County natives. They are defender Brian Lenzer, defender (Severna Park, McDonogh, Johns Hopkins), goalkeeper Connor Smith (Davidsonville, McDonogh, Brown), forward Gordon Bernlohr (Severna Park, Catholic), midfielder Jackson Ruckman (Edgewater, High Point), forward Luke Eberle (Arnold, AACS, Liberty) and midfielder Miles Lam (Linthicum, Mount St. Joseph, American).
The Blues have a handful of players who have played professionally in the past. They must renounce their professional status and sign amateur contracts in order to compete in the NPSL. Perhaps the most notable of that bunch is center back Elton De Oliveira, who has played professionally in Brazil, Poland, Romania as well as the Baltimore Blast of the Major Arena Soccer League.
“Elton has an incredible amount of experience and is a very polished player. It’s like having a coach on the field,” Herriot said.
The National Premier Soccer League sits in the fourth division on the United States soccer pyramid. It was established three decades ago and now features 100 teams nationwide. Another Anne Arundel County soccer organization, Christos FC, fields a team in the second division of the United Soccer League, which is parallel to the NPSL. Directly underneath Major League Soccer is USL Championship and USL 1.
Matthews said the Annapolis Blues ownership group chose to partner with the NPSL because it is truly community-based soccer. Many NPSL teams aspire to reach the USL 1 or USL Championship levels, but Matthes said the Blues owners are focused on building the best possible NPSL organization.
“The sport of soccer has a horrible history of teams opening then folding in a few years. It’s littered with the tombstones of soccer clubs that have fallen by the wayside,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen here. We want to build an established club with a solid foundation that will be around for a long time.”
Blues management is off to a good start, having secured more than 40 sponsors at various levels. Forward Brewing, which has been located in Eastport for three years, is the most prominent and has the honor of gracing the front of the team jersey.
“We wanted to support a team that clearly wants to be an impactful part of the community. The Blues are a very family-friendly club and their games are bringing out a lot of kids,” Forward Brewing owner Cam Bowdren said. “I would rather support an entry level team that is more approachable for younger people than the major leagues. The Blues have kids going to their games who can actually aspire to play in that league.”
The Blues enter Saturday night’s home opener against FC Frederick with a 2-0-1 record and are tied atop the Mid-Atlantic Conference of the East Division of NPSL.
“We are actually working through the acclimation process quicker than expected and that’s a credit to the players being able to implement what the coaching staff is teaching,” Herriot said. “Our team identity is coming together and you can see the chemistry developing. We still have a long way to go, but we’re really pleased with the progress.”