The scene from historic Boxer Stadium in San Francisco with El Farolito hosting Burlingame Dragons in the First Round of the 2017 US Open Cup. Photo: Evan Ream
On Nov. 19, 2017, El Farolito dominated Cal Victory FC 8-0 to clinch a spot in the 2018 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. It was a “Win & You’re In” game in the Open Division qualifying tournament for the 105th edition of the competition. It was the second year in a row that the San Francisco-area club would punch their ticket and they did it by not allowing a single goal in three games, outscoring their opponents 16-0.
However, when they made the decision to change leagues from the historic San Francisco Soccer Football League (SFSFL) to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), they violated a rule in the US Open Cup bylaws and it cost them a trip to the 2018 tournament.
So, why is that rule in place?
It began before the 2015 US Open Cup when the tournament committee made a change to the bylaws about team eligibility. In Section 202, subsection c reads that teams entering through the Open Division must adhere to the following rules to remain eligible throughout the tournament:
“(i) A team must remain a playing member in good standing within its club/league competition, starting from the Open Division entry deadline and continuing until the Open Cup Final for the competition year;
(ii) A team’s league must be in operation from the Open Division entry deadline until the Open Cup Final for the competition year.”
During the qualifying tournament, El Farolito had been in talks with the NPSL and were hoping to be accepted into the league.
“We always knew about the rule,” said El Farolito general manager Santiago Lopez. “But there was a deadline to enter the US Open Cup and we didn’t know if NPSL was going to accept us.”
A portion of Section 202 of the 2015 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup handbook.
So they decided to continue with the qualifying tournament as a backup plan just in case they weren’t accepted into the NPSL. Shortly after they defeated Cal Victory FC to clinch a spot in the tournament, the NPSL decided to accept El Farolito into the fold.
After the tweet was sent out, it didn’t take long for US Soccer to give Lopez a call to confirm the news and to let him know what his options were. Lopez was told what he already knew, if he decided to join the NPSL and leave the SFSFL completely, they would be disqualified. There have been other teams who have changed leagues during the tournament, but the workaround is that they keep a team in the old league, or field a reserve team, in order to remain in good standing with the league.
They would either have to field two teams or play their first team twice each weekend. That wasn’t an option for El Farolito.
“SFSFL is one of the toughest amateur leagues in the country and having two clubs at the same time is extremely difficult,” Lopez said. “The President [of the club] decided to just focus on NPSL.”
This wasn’t the first time since 2015 that a team was disqualified for switching leagues. On Oct. 22, 2016, Minneapolis City SC defeated Michigan’s Oakland County FC 2-1 in extra time to clinch a spot in the 2017 US Open Cup before they learned that their plans to move from the Premier League of America to the NPSL was a violation of tournament rules. Once it became clear that they were in violation of the Open Cup bylaws, Minneapolis approached the USSF to see if they could work out an arrangement that would allow them to continue. In the end, they were disqualified.
Some fans and members of the media have asked why this rule was added in 2015. Also, why does the New York Cosmos B, Jacksonville Armada and Miami FC 2 get to participate in the 2018 US Open Cup despite technically changing leagues.
As for the motivation for the rule change, a USSF spokesperson explained it this way.
By changing leagues, even if the team in question leaves to join another US Soccer-affiliated league, there is an “interruption” to their affiliation with the federation. In theory, a team could drop out of their current league, join another league and if they are eliminated from the Open Cup, they could drop out of the new league before they even play a game.
In an extreme scenario, a club could drop out of its current league and register to join another, followed by losing its next Open Cup game without having played a match in its new league. With the Open Cup out of reach, the club could then decide to immediately withdraw from its new league (which it might have joined to retain Open Cup eligibility as its only intention).
While this scenario may be unlikely, based on this explanation, the federation is just concerned with covering their bases.