Rows of trophies rest proudly at a bar on 24th/Mission Street in San Francisco.
Despite the dark interior of El Farolito Bar, it’s easy to appreciate the silverware. Your eyes are drawn to the trophies that stretch along a shelf high above the rows of liquor bottles and crowning the televisions, often showing soccer games from all corners of the globe.
One award stands out above the others – if not in physical stature then surely in significance. It’s The 1993 U.S. Open Cup trophy. While not the elegant silver Cup of today, or the original Dewar Cup which is living out its retirement at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas.
This trophy, a simple soccer ball on a wooden pedestal, was used for the years of the late 1980s and early 90s – after the collapse of the original NASL in the mid 1980s and before the start of MLS in 1996. It’s not the biggest or shiniest trophy you’ll ever see, but it’s evidence of the talent and hard work of the soccer team that won it – and shares the name of the bar and the restaurant next door to it.
“Soccer has been a part of our lives every day,” said Irene Lopez, club manager of El Farolito SC. She also helps run the restaurant and bar right outside the bustling 24th/Mission Bart station.
A Return to the Open Cup
El Farolito (the team) currently find themselves in the midst of another U.S. Open Cup run – their third in the past six years and their fourth since that magnificent year of 1993. Their upcoming game is on Tuesday, April 4, in the Second Round, against second-division pros Oakland Roots of the USL Championship (The game will be streamed live on the Bleacher Report App and B/R Football YouTube).
Salvador was juggling two passions at once. Back home in Mexico City, he witnessed Cruz Azul win three titles in Mexico’s first division, developing a devotion to soccer in the 1970s.
The success of both the restaurants and the team begins with one man: Salvador Lopez. Living in Mexico City, he worked at taquerias and learned the business inside and out. After coming to the United States, he opened up his own chain in 1983 under the name El Farolito.
He was an avid fan of the sport, which inspired him to start a team of his own. But building a team came with many challenges. “He didn’t have the money to fund anything or get a group of people together,” said Santiago Lopez, current head coach of El Farolito SC and the son of Salvador Lopez. “He was new to the area.”
But in 1985, just two years after the first El Farolito taqueria opened, Salvador founded a team and registered it for the historic San Francisco Soccer Football League (SFSFL). To him, it made sense to name it after his popular eatery. “The league was very, very strong,” nodded Santiago. “He [Salvador] just kept going and getting momentum off that and getting a big reputation around the area.”
El Faro, as the team is sometimes called, experienced success early, reaching the league's top division just five years after entering. They then went on to win the championship in the 1991-92 season.
Grit & Talent Define El Faro’s Early Years
El Farolito always managed to rise to the occasion when facing powerhouse teams such as the Greek Americans, the league’s most successful team and 1985 Open Cup champions, and San Francisco-based giants of yesteryear the Olympic Club.
The team’s determination to compete made them a staple of the league, and they were much feared.It’s how El Farolito established a team identity. A strong sense of family filled the locker room. “Everybody was just a big family at that time,” said Santiago. “All the players would gather with their families post-game and we would have food outside of the stadium.”
Salvador Lopez cared for his players beyond the pitch too. He provided them with free meals after games catered, of course, by his restaurant. This highlighted what Salvador felt was most important when running a soccer team.
“[Salvador] would never think about results or anything,” insisted Santiago. “He just did what he thought would be fun…he never wanted any of that attention.”
But Salvador’s easy-going mentality by no means prevented the team from taking games seriously.
After the 1991-92 season, El Faro changed names to Club Deportivo Mexico – and it’s that name that would be chiseled into their most prestigious accomplishment – the Open Cup trophy that sits high above the original El Farolito Bar.
Open Cup Glories No Easy Feat
The road to the Open Cup Final that year was a complicated one. In the early regional rounds, CD Mexico faced defending champions, the San Jose Oaks. The San Francisco men managed only a slim 1-0 victory.
In the regional final/Cup Quarterfinal, they beat Exiles SC in a penalty shootout to move through to the next round. In the Semifinals, the famed Milwaukee Bavarians – a club still playing and competing in Open Cups to this day – faced the Bay Area El Faro in one of the most iconic games in club history.
The game was tied 1-1 in overtime and C.D. Mexico was down to nine players. It took a heroic effort from Colombian striker Jose Angulo to score two decisive goals that sent the team to the Final of the U.S. Open Cup – the oldest and most prestigious tournament in American soccer.
“They [CD Mexico] were really good. So quick on the ball,” remembered Bob Gansler, son of the former U.S. Men’s National Team coach of the same name, who was in the Bavarians team that year. “We didn’t have our best day, but they [El Faro] were not afraid to attack in numbers.”
Santiago Lopez remembers growing up around Cup hero Angulo, who passed away only a few years ago. Angulo’s son was the same age as Santiago and the two of them would kick the ball around at halftime of El Farolito games at historic Boxer Stadium, their home field to this day.
“Everybody respected him [Angulo],” said Santiago. “He was so lethal on the field.”
The Semifinal was thrilling and difficult, but the same cannot be said about that year’s tournament Final. CD Mexico cruised through the match, beating United German-Hungarians of Pennsylvania by a lopsided score of 5-0 to lift the trophy that now sits proudly at El Faro’s spiritual home.
Soon after, the team returned to being known as El Farolito SC. But it took time before they’d again reach the heights they did in the early 90s. “After ‘93, the club really disappeared with the Open Cup,” said Santiago. “It wasn't really a big priority.”
Coaches came and went and the team only competed in amateur weekend tournaments and in the SFSFL, which was slowly dipping in quality with the reemergence of the professional game, particularly Major League Soccer which was formed in 1996.
It wasn’t until 2011 that Santiago decided to step in. At this point in El Farolito’s history, the team moved out of the SFSFL to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
“I had zero interest in playing soccer or being involved with soccer,” said Santiago. Despite this, “I really wanted to help…and we kept on winning. We won a couple of championships.”
In 2017, after winning the Golden Gate Conference of the nationwide NPSL, El Farolito earned an automatic berth to the U.S. Open Cup – the club’s first appearance since their championship win.
It was nothing compared to their famous run of long ago as El Farolito lost to S.F. City in the First Round of the tournament. But the loss was a turning point in Santiago’s stint as manager.
A Return to the Big Stage
“Since then, I’ve been completely focused,” said Santiago. “Not only winning locally, winning in NPSL or the league but trying to compete and qualify for the Open Cup.”
Santiago was determined to qualify again. Between running the whole team and helping to run the restaurants, he knew that finding the right balance was essential to the well-being of the club.
Irene Lopez ensures that things run smoothly. She aids Santiago with smaller tasks like securing ambulances for games. She calls it a “routine” that she’s gotten used to, but she also says that “every year is special.”
“It’s something you have to balance,” Irene added.
Even the players have to find the right approach that fits in with their personal lives.
Jehimy Arias, one of El Farolito’s current players, who stood out in the recent 2023 Open Cup First Round win over SFSFL debutants International San Francisco, attended Saint Mary’s College of California. “I had class at that time of the first game [of the 2019 Open Cup],” said Arias. “So I watched it on the internet.”
Running the club is a task that requires a lot of care and attention, especially after the unfortunate loss of Salvador Lopez two years ago. According to Santiago, the mission remains the same.
Old Traditions Survive
“The intention is to maintain the tradition that [Salvador]...created,” said Santiago. “Try to get your best team out there. If it’s for pool, if it’s for soccer, or it’s a person that’s gonna be working cashier or grill at the taqueria.” (Yes, El Farolito also has successful pool/billiards teams.)
El Farolito aims to remain a welcoming hub for the community of the Mission District in the City
“There’s a lot of Latinos that know about it,” said Arias. “There’s a lot of supporters, there’s a lot of people that like soccer, and for the Latino community to have that type of soccer team that competes at a high level in San Francisco is very good.”
In the 2023 edition of the Open Cup, El Farolito now has a chance to make history yet again.
“To adapt to any situation and just do it for fun and passion,” said Santiago, steward of a proud tradition, ahead of a stiff test against the pros from Oakland. “I think that’s the formula for a lot of things in life.”
Abel Anguiano is a writer and reporter who writes about the San Jose Earthquakes and the Mexican National Team for Area Sports Network. Follow him at @_abelanguiano on Twitter.