Update: Annapolis Blues FC lost to West Chester United SC in the East Region Final on Friday, 4-0.

There is a popular song, a chant really, in Annapolis this summer. Maybe you’ve heard it?

It’s like the old football — er, soccer — anthem:

“Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé.”

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It’s the one with roots in “Anderlecht Champion,” a Belgian song that twisted the Spanish bullfighting cheer “Olé!” into French, “allez, allez, allez.”

Then the Mexicans made it their own with “E Viva Mexico” in 1986, the story goes, chanting “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé” to support the national team in the World Cup. Now everybody uses it.

Except in Annapolis. This is how the home crowd cheers when the Annapolis Blues, a new soccer team with a blue crab logo, score a goal:

“Old Bay, Old Bay, Old Bay, Old Bay.”

Crabs and Old Bay? Get it?

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Who dreamed up this nutty bit of fandom?

“That’s just a supporters club kind of just banding together at the tailgate in the parking lot, figuring out chants,” said Steven Hooper, director of sales and marketing for the team. “I think they just kind of were all drunk in the parking lot, kicking rocks out there, and decided we should do Old Bay, Old Bay, Old Bay instead of Olé.”

How do you build a fan culture from scratch? It’s more than drunken brainstorming in the parking lot of Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, the home of the Navy Midshipmen in the fall.

And make no mistake, soccer — er, football — has a passionate base of supporters right now in Annapolis. Although the capital of Maryland is a small city, it anchors vast Anne Arundel County, with nearly 600,000 residents.

If Annapolis wins at 4 p.m. today against West Chester United in the National Professional Soccer League’s East Region semifinal, it plays either National Premier Soccer League champions FC Motown or Hartford City FC at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Both games are being played in Morristown, New Jersey.

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If they lose, the Blues come home to Annapolis.

Annapolis Blues forward Jacob Murrell fights for the ball during a game against VB City on Saturday, June 11, 2023. Annapolis won 3-0. (Dylan Thiessen)

While football and baseball have their fans, too, nothing quite matches the passion of a soccer fan heading into a championship run. Remember that time Honduras and El Salvador went to war briefly in 1969 after a match between their national teams?

The fan culture has sprouted in Annapolis seemingly out of nowhere. There are chants, songs and flags.

“Too many sports, particularly American sports culture, can be very gate-keepy,” said Sam Huston, co-host of the Naptown Blues Fan Cast. “We wanted to be fun.”

Excitement for the team certainly has to do with its 7-1 winning regular season and making it to the playoffs in the first year of the franchise.

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But the Blues set a league-record crowd in its first home game. Let me repeat that: the first home game.

It then went on to rack up a season attendance record for the league and broke its own team crowd high mark with 8,480 fans at the Mid Atlantic Conference championship win in Annapolis on July 22.

Annapolis has been here before with sports, but this does seem different.

Navy football certainly generates passion, particularly when they win. But a lot of the crowd at home games has connections to the Naval Academy or the Navy.

Annapolis had a pro lacrosse team, the Chesapeake Bayhawks, a few years back. Before it folded in 2020, the team set a club attendance record in the very same stadium with 16,000 fans.

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Lacrosse, though, even in lacrosse-crazy Maryland, has always seemed like a sport for elites. Soccer is the sport that fills every playing field around Annapolis to the bursting point every fall, with thousands of little players running around in blue, yellow, red and green uniforms.

“I played tons of soccer in Australia, and I played until my 30s,” Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said. “I love soccer.”

He’s chanted “Old Bay” with the rest of us, but he’s also invested in another requirement for fandom: gear. He and his son have plenty of it, including blue-and-white jerseys and scarves.

What is it with scarves and soccer anyway? The New York Times did a story last year that traced the origins to the 1930s.

“I guess it’s more of a winter sport in Europe,” Buckley said. “So you see all the fans with scarves in winter. It’s not working out in the sweltering heat.”

Maybe the following is a result of some players — the team is largely made of college players — who grew up competing on local fields on those crowded Saturday mornings.

Gordon Bernlohr played in local youth leagues and at Severna Park High School. He plays at Catholic University now, but this summer he’s a leading scorer for the Blues.

He’s been on several team outings to capture young fans.

“Most of our roster’s made it out to meet-and-greets throughout Annapolis and the surrounding area,” he said. “I personally went to the skills clinic at the Y, which is about five minutes from my house. So I went to the Y in Arnold and got to teach about 50 or so young kids fundamentals of soccer. And that was really great.”

These seeds of ardor were planted months before the first game when the team ownership made some business decisions.

Hooper said there was a conscious choice to avoid corporate sponsors in lieu of locals; Rise Up Coffee and Forward Brewing occupy spaces on the jerseys, along with Picante, a local restaurant. Sponsor cards along the stadium wall are all local companies, too.

Huston came on the scene in February, after his wife and producer, Melissa Huston, gave him season tickets. They have a podcast focusing on Premier League games and approached the team about another. Soon Hiram Wainwright, the team’s community outreach director, was onboard as a co-host.

The first three shows — in April, no less — were about what it takes to make a club, then how you run a club and then how you create a supporters’ group.

That’s when the Bay Bhoys were born, fans who wave flags, come up with the songs and lead the cheers. Kids are now leading the songs, starting the chants, and if they want to run around on the field with flags, they can do that, too.

“This is what footy, soccer, is,” Huston said. “This is the community. This is what we’re building; what we’re all building together.”

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In June, Buckley got on board with a YouTube video and a fake mustache, offering a riff on “Ted Lasso,” the popular Apple TV show about an American soccer coach in England.

From the first home game, the club decided to concentrate fans on one side of the stadium, where 8,000 people feels like a huge crowd, instead of spreading them out on both sides.

“I love it that they’re trying to get a wave going on one side of the field,” Buckley said. “I love it that they’re trying to concentrate the fans.”

So far, there have been some feeble attempts at a wave. And some vague attempts at making a pincer hand gesture haven’t gotten much traction. Maybe next year.

If the Blues win in New Jersey, they’ll move on to the next round. Trying to decipher whether there will be any more home games involves one of those sports-specific calculations that involve other teams losing, maybe even on certain days. I never could follow that, but you can watch the game on a livestream.

Maybe there will be a parade.

I reached out to McCormick & Company, the Baltimore spice manufacturer, to get their reaction to having one of their brands co-opted by the Bay Bhoys in Annapolis. There was no response.

One more thing about fan passion. Sam Huston, the podcast host? He attended the conference championship in Annapolis — a tough game with red cards, overtime and penalty kicks — days after open-heart surgery.

Coach Colin Herriot said the team won because of the 12th man, the fans in the stands.

Even if you like J.O. on your crabs, I’ll bet you’ll be singing that same old tune again soon.

“Old Bay, Old Bay, Old Bay, Old Bay — Old Bay. Old Bay.”

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rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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