Colin Herriot can’t buy a cup of coffee unnoticed.
Since the Annapolis Blues released the schedule for their inaugural season March 24, Herriot, the team’s head coach, has been approached by fans at the local Rise Up coffee shop. Team owner Michael Hitchcock had the same experience the morning after the Blues’ home opener June 3 as a sea of blue jerseys flooded the shop. Some fans even held orders of the Blues blend, a flavor named after the new semiprofessional men’s soccer team.
“There’s always been that hole in the market, and that’s where Annapolis came in,” Herriot said about the new National Premier Soccer League squad. “It’s no Baltimore; it’s no DC. It’s Annapolis.”
Two years ago, Hitchcock began conversations about creating a semiprofessional team in Annapolis. It was always on his radar because his wife is from Baltimore and his family spends a lot of time in the area. With an ownership group established and sponsors secured, the idea finally came to fruition, adding an eighth team to the Mid-Atlantic Conference.
On June 3, the Blues broke an NPSL record with 8,368 fans at their home opener at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. This past weekend, 7,665 attendees watched Annapolis dominate Virginia Beach City FC in a 3-0 win, securing a 4-1-0 record nearly halfway through their 11-game season.
“The expansion year is always the hardest on and off the field,” Hitchcock said. “The team is off to a great start.”
Soccer’s always been an important part of the DMV area, from the grassroots midlevel to adult recreational play to viewership for international games, Hitchcock said. There have been a handful of professional teams too, going back to the Washington Diplomats and Baltimore Bays, who played in the now-disbanded North American Soccer League. And the Baltimore Blast have been a mainstay in the professional indoor soccer sphere.
The current fandom is mostly centered around MLS side DC United, for whom Hitchcock worked 26 years ago in entry-level ticket sales. He moved up the ranks of management for MLS teams after that job, serving as general manager for FC Dallas from 2005-09.
Hitchcock founded Playbook Management International after his stint at FC Dallas. While based in Dallas, Hitchcock’s company has helped sprout professional teams internationally. His 14th project was the Blues.
The business process was the same to launch the Annapolis club, but Hitchcock said every market is “different and unique.” With the Blues, he felt it was important to build a local management group. So he enlisted the help of Kyle Beckerman and Alex Yi, former MLS stars from the DMV. And store owners such as Rise Up’s Brandon Bartlett got involved last June — he said the Blues blend has a “smooth” taste.
“When you build that dynamic ownership group, and dream team if you will, that potential is amazing,” Hitchcock said.
With Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium secured as the team’s home venue, the next step was finding the right coach.
Hitchcock said the Blues narrowed their choices to three before deciding on Herriot, a coach for youth developmental academy Maryland United FC. Herriot heard the buzz around the team and, after 15 years of coaching in the youth sector, he didn’t want to pass on the chance.
“It was just a good opportunity for me to put in my ideals and the way I see the game being played and put that in that next level,” Herriot said.
Herriot’s connections to the local youth talent were key when assembling the team because the 20-year-old league is mostly composed of college athletes looking for extra play during the offseason. He picked some players who went through Maryland United’s system such as midfielders Jackson Ruckman and Aidan Abril, though most players were ones he coached against.
Baltimore native Toshi Davis was approached by assistant coach Daniel Louisignau, who recruited him to American University. Davis said he went to a couple of Baltimore Blast games as a kid with professional aspirations. Playing for the Blues has allowed him, and other kids who grew up in the area, to explore that avenue.
“We knew there wasn’t a major sports team yet and the fact that it was soccer, it was a huge opportunity for all of us,” Davis said.
Herriot said the skill level in the NPSL isn’t much different from youth or college soccer, because most players at any age want to evolve into professionals. He added that the NPSL style is “more energetic,” rather than the calculated, methodical play he had to get accustomed to at AU.
Still, there wasn’t much turnaround for the players before the start of the season. The final squad was assembled in March but, with school, the players only began training May 2. Some players, who were still finishing final exams, couldn’t join until the second or third week of May.
Because of that quick transition, Herriot is surprised by how quickly the team has picked up on the basic principles he’s wanted to install: an aggressive attack and domination of possession.
Against Virginia Beach City, it took until the 68th minute for that style to lead to results. In less than 15 minutes, Annapolis scored twice more for a 3-0 lead, the song “I’m Blue” by Eiffel 65 blasting after each goal.
“It’s been a really good start, but that’s all it is,” Herriot said with the playoffs beginning in early August.
But, months before Annapolis’ second win over Virginia Beach City, Hitchcock made sure the players understood the magnitude of bringing a new team to a city, how they’d have to be a reflection of the community on and off the field.
To get more involved, the Blues have done “kicking and reading” events at the local library while taking trips to Broadneck Elementary School in Arnold. Davis said if he can inspire one kid to keep playing then he’s done his job. Bartlett, who has a daughter who plays for Maryland United, said it’s encouraging for local youths to meet the players.
“They go through tons of training and tons of games. To see an end result is exciting for them,” Bartlett said.
The tailgates at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium are littered with a lighter shade of blue than the normal Midshipmen jerseys. The fans don’t have generational reserved spots in the parking lot as Navy fans do, but Bartlett said it will get to that level someday.
Saturday, hundreds gathered in the parking lot hours before the matchup against Virginia Beach City, some arriving only after the conclusion of the Champions League final. Instead of the regular cornhole, kids opted to kick around a soccer ball.