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The taqueria that shocked the soccer world: Inside El Farolito’s miracle U.S. Open Cup win

A jubilant soccer team celebrates on a pitch at night with a scoreboard showing a 1-2 victory in the background.
An amateur soccer team based in the Mission District traveled to Portland and knocked out a Major League Soccer team. | Source: Courtesy Richard Ybarra

Imagine if the staff at Tartine Bakery or Señor Sisig started their own baseball team and knocked out the Giants’ best minor leaguers at Oracle Park. 

That’s essentially what happened in Portland at the 25,000-seat Providence Park, where on Tuesday, a soccer team tied to a legendary San Francisco taqueria El Farolito scored two dramatic goals in the second half to steal a game in the opening round of the U.S. Open Cup to knock out a Major League Soccer club.

El Farolito SC—an amateur soccer team funded by burrito sales from the local restaurant chain it shares a name with—eliminated the Portland Timbers from the tournament by a final score of 2-1. 

A bustling street corner with a bar sign and pedestrians, palm trees in the background.
El Farolito Bar, next to Taqueria El Farolito, was founded by Mexican immigrant Salvador Lopez in 1983. The success of the business spawned the creation of a soccer team. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The cup is the nation’s oldest soccer competition. It consists of a single-elimination bracket featuring teams from all across the country and at all levels. It’s the only competition of its kind, where a pub team made up of weekend warriors can be pitted against a professional side. 

El Farolito forward Dembor Benson from Honduras scored the game-winning goal with a back-post header in the 68th minute. Fifteen minutes earlier, his teammate from Colombia, defender Sebastián Yabur, scored from the exact same spot. 

“We’ve played a lot of memorable games over the years, but this is a top-five win for sure,” El Farolito owner and head coach Santiago Lopez told The Standard over the phone, with his voice still raspy from the night before. He said it was because of a nasty cold going around in the city—and not from celebrating in the locker room and hotel after the win. (Sure, coach, sure.) 

Pressed to elaborate on the festivities, Lopez shyly admitted drinks were both consumed and sprayed that night.

“In fairness to [Portland], they were playing their academy kids,” Lopez said, referring to members of the Timbers’ farm team. “So we knew that if we came out aggressive, not allowing them time on the ball, we’d have success.” 

As opposed to a group of wide-eyed soccer prospects, El Farolito (which is Spanish for “the little lighthouse”) is a team of experienced men from a total of six different countries, all of whom arrived in San Francisco for various reasons and only play soccer part-time. 

Although the team enjoys free catering from El Farolito, the players don’t actually work at the restaurants. Some are here on tourist visas, and others work full-time jobs. 

Foreign players continue to flock to the lighthouse, or “El Faro,” as the team is sometimes called, for its rich tradition of bringing immigrants of different backgrounds together, Lopez said. 

A shelf holds a weathered soccer ball trophy labeled "1993 Champion" and a colorful glass award next to electronic devices.
In between eras of American professional soccer, El Farolito actually won the U.S. Open Cup championship in 1993. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Those who have not quite carved out stable careers as professional soccer players overseas know they can come to San Francisco and get quality game-time experience and exposure to professional leagues in the U.S. 

“Since we don’t have the money to join [the professional leagues], this competition is the only opportunity we have left to really keep our tradition going,” Lopez said. The winner of the Open Cup also gets a $300,000 prize. 

Burritos by day, soccer by night

The team was originally founded by Santiago Lopez’s father, Salvador, in 1985, two years after he opened the family’s first taqueria in the Mission District. 

Back then, professional soccer in the United States had largely fizzled out after the North American Soccer League went bankrupt, having splurged on international stars like Pelé and Johan Cruyff. Major League Soccer was still a decade away from its founding. 

That meant in the United States, the world’s most popular game was held together by a mosaic of local community teams

Playing under the name “C.D. Mexico,” El Faro won its first and only U.S. Open Cup title in 1993, beating the likes of the Milwaukee Bavarians and the United German Hungarians of Pennsylvania en route to its most prestigious trophy in club history. 

The landscape has changed drastically since then. MLS teams’ entry into the competition in 1996 has meant that no minor league side has won the competition in the last quarter-century. The Sacramento Republic, a Division II team, came closest when it made a Cinderella run to the final in 2022. 

A dimly lit bar with a TV showing soccer, patrons seated, trophies displayed, and an "EXIT" sign illuminated.
El Farolito Bar is lined with various trophies that the soccer team has won over the four decades. The watering hole is known for its fanatical devotion to the sport. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

This year, however, in a controversial move, MLS opted not to send all of its 26 teams to the tournament, meaning a team like Portland only fielded its developmental players.

On top of the Cup, El Faro play weekend contests as part of the semi-professional National Premier Soccer League, which runs from March until July. Its home games take place at Boxer Stadium at Balboa Park, one of San Francisco’s many historic but aging venues

In their biggest game in recent history, the team’s 23 players and staff flew into Portland on different commercial flights on Monday night. A day after their historic win, they were still coordinating their tickets back home. 

Today, the Lopez family operates a total of 11 Taqueria El Farolito locations across the Bay Area—including three in San Francisco—with shops spanning Sonoma County in the north and San Jose in the south. 

“This is all about continuing to share the story of my father,” Lopez said. “He came to this country with absolutely nothing but his recipes, and he created all of this out of his passion.” 

Hands holding a quesadilla with a Coca-Cola bottle on a yellow table.
Taqueria El Farolito is known for a selection of signature items like the quesadilla suiza and its array of hefty burritos. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

El Farolito’s next cup game will either be on April 1 or 2, with a location and opponent yet to be determined.

But even with its historic win on the books, the team won’t have time to rest on its laurels once they return home, Lopez said. It’s right back to training for their upcoming NPSL game on Saturday.