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An Interview With The Manager Of El Farolito SC, San Francisco’s Burrito-Funded U.S. Open Cup Heroes

I will admit to a serious bias: El Farolito is my favorite burrito spot in San Francisco. I've shuffled into El Farolito, mere steps away from the 24th Street BART station, conservatively 100 times for their generously corpulent burritos, occasionally munching them with a Tecate (one of the cheapest on Mission) at their bar next door. Even then, I did not learn that they ran a fourth-division soccer team until Tuesday night, when I also learned that El Farolito SC had flown to Portland and beaten Portland Timbers 2, 2-1, to advance in the U.S. Open Cup. Lower-division sides occasionally upset pro teams, though a team this close to my heart doing it to an MLS reserve side is something else entirely. The highlights do not show an overmatched side timidly squeaking by—they show a dominant El Farolito.

I caught up with Santiago Lopez on Wednesday to ask him about the team. Lopez is one of the three general managers of the restaurant franchise (they have several locations in the Bay Area) and the general manager and coach of EFSC, and he spoke to Defector from the Portland airport shortly before he and the team boarded a flight home. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

So obviously, yesterday was a big result. Could you put it in context for us? Is that the biggest result you've had since you became head coach?

I took over 14 years ago, we were in the San Francisco Soccer League, and we qualified to the Open Cup through the amateur track, through the open track. In the past, that's been two games, sometimes it's been four games. But because we are [now] in the National Premier Soccer League, which is a national league, we have to compete within our league, and then the top teams in our league qualify directly to the proper [Open Cup]. So this is our third time that we've qualified to the Open Cup through the NPSL, in addition to two times through the open track.

I was watching the highlights of yesterday's match, and what struck me was that you guys seemed like the better team. Two-thirds of the highlights were just good attacking moves from EFSC, like their keeper had three or four great saves. So I'm curious, what was the game plan heading into the match yesterday?

We've been working on our strategy and our system of playing for over a year, because I have basically about 60 to 70 percent of the same players from the past two seasons. So this is going to be the third season with the same core group of players. We've always stayed with the same strategy; we're just fine-tuning certain details. We were very fortunate that our formation (a 3-5-2) and strategy has good probabilities and chances of stressing the opponents, especially against a very young, inexperienced team in very tense situations. Also, having a new coach lead their club, I think, played a big factor.

Did it seem like they were feeling the pressure?

I feel like we were the most intense team out on the field for sure.

I feel like most American soccer fans don't really know about the NPSL. Who are the players who play for your squad, and where did they come from?

Yeah, there are a lot of locals, and a lot of people that are new to the country. Some have played professionally at the youth level in their own country and within the Latino community, or whatever community in the United States. You're always gonna find amateur players playing in Sunday leagues, so I just go out and scout whenever I get a chance, or whenever somebody tells me, "Hey, there's a good soccer team in this league, in I don't know, Richmond," or, "There's a good tournament in Bakersfield." And that's how I get to know and network with people. And I find these players that are around the region that I invite and they come through twice a week, and they have their normal day jobs, and they come out and we just try to prepare the best as we can.

EFSC definitely has a rich history, particularly as Club Deportivo Mexico. And I was wondering if you could tell our readers about the founding and the early history of the club.

The club started in 1985. At that time, the San Francisco Soccer League was one of the top leagues in the entire country. And EFSC started all the way from the bottom. And every single year, they kept on winning, until they got promoted all the way to the top Premier Division. And they would compete against the Greek-Americans, Concordia, the Scots, very traditional teams in the Bay Area in the '80s and '90s. The Greek-Americans were a top club in that era with United States national team players [Ed. note: Many former Greek-American players earned international caps: Godwin Odiye for Nigeria, Salvador Bernárdez for Honduras, Esmaeil Haj Rahimipour for Iran, and Paulo Bravo, John Doyle, Tim Martin, Dominic Kinnear, and Johnny Moore for the USMNT] and the head coach [Lothar Osiander] was also head coach of the national team at one point.

So they created this rivalry, this derby in San Francisco against El Farolito and it was just monster, monster battles in Boxer Stadium and EFSC finally became powerful with a very good core of players, Latino players, new immigrants to the to the region. Some of them were actually working for El Farolito. Our starting goalkeeper [Guillermo Valadez] was a first-division goalkeeper for Atlas in Guadalajara. He migrated to the United States, he met the coach, and ended up working for the taqueria. He was part of the 1993 Open Cup champions, which was the only year they changed the name of the club [to Club Deportivo Mexico]. Because they won the US Open Cup, they qualified to the CONCACAF Champions League and I don't think even won a single game. In the group stage, they lost 4-1 against Necaxa, the top team in Mexico at that time, with Ecuadorian legend Álex Aguinaga, all these soccer legends at that time in Mexico. It was before MLS and it was just a whole different story.

When MLS started, the San Francisco league went slowly downhill and then slowly disappeared to the point where the San Francisco league wasn't really much of an attraction for the owners or the players. So then I took over 14 years ago, and in my first four years, we won three championships in the league. And I wanted to compete more, I wanted to step it up, and put the name of the club at a higher stage. So I started the project of the Open Cup, to keep the tradition going. It's not a promotion-relegation situation, but it's the closest we could get in this country to compete in an official match against professional teams. I keep trying every single year to qualify to the Open Cup and try to put myself and my players—really, my co-workers, my teammates—in these positions to try to learn.

I read that you were in Indianapolis for the final in '93 [Ed. note: Santiago is the son of Salvador Lopez, the founder of El Farolito], which you guys won 5-0. What was that like?

I was just a child, but I remember very well that the bond and the connection of the players was just incredible. It was like a family. There were three pairs of brothers, and that just really helped out the environment. I remember the flights, the hotel dinners, being with the equipment staff and helping them out, you know, jumping around, playing with soccer balls. It was just a very positive energy. And that's exactly what I'm trying to transmit. Regardless of the result, we have to come out stronger together at least as teammates.

This time around, the goal is to keep competing going forward. What's the mentality as you guys get ready for more games and, what makes this team so special?

All the groups to me are special. I think our players now know the intensity of these games. From the past year, two years, they've realized that they need to prepare more and more, because the level just keeps getting higher and higher. Before, you used to compete in the first round against a USL club or an open-track fourth- or fifth-division team. Now in the first round, you're competing against MLS Next Pro, which is even harder. In this new format with all these MLS Next Pro teams, it's going to really bring out the best in these grassroots and these amateur clubs, because now they feel that they can pull off a cupset, and they're gonna prepare even better. So I think there is a good side of this whole new change of the format.

As I said, I'm a big fan of El Farolito. It's my favorite burrito spot in the city, and I know that these past few years have been hard on local businesses. So I'm curious, what's something that you think most people would be surprised to learn about El Farolito?

It's been very difficult for a lot of people in all industries. We're very lucky to work in the food industry, and, you know, everybody needs to eat. The whole entire organization, I can tell you, we are for sure, mentally focused on keeping the prices as low as possible, regardless of the situation of our insurance policies going up, produce going up, obviously rents keep going up, expenses keep going up. I can probably guarantee you we are the cheapest super burrito in San Francisco. We want to keep working hard and maintaining that because we are here because of the community, and we want to keep providing that to the community as an option, where, if you don't have that much money, you can definitely count on having the same portions every single time for the same price.

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