WASHINGTON – On an unusually warm January afternoon, days after landing in D.C., Edison Flores–wearing a thick black jacket to go with his familiar grin–sits inside an empty Audi Field, overlooking the ground that has just become his home. The field is covered, protected against the harsher conditions that will surely come, but Flores, having lived in Denmark for two years while playing for Aalborg BK, knows all too well about colder weather. He doesn’t care. All he can do right now is smile as he looks ahead to life in the capital city.
“I can’t wait. I’m aching to go,” says Flores, as he breaks down his preseason itinerary like a kid ready to go to Disney World. “After training here [in D.C.] we head off to Florida for 12 days, then we come back, then back again to Florida. I’m excited.”
He looks at the pitch one more time, then the seats and then over to the north end of the stadium, where construction workers are finishing the new safe-standing section.
“It looks great. Great location. It all just leaves for me to give it my best,” Flores says.
There’s much to ponder for a club that lost multiple key attacking players at the end of 2019, including Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodríguez. Now, with Ola Kamara (who arrived late last season), Paul Arriola, Julian Gressel and Flores, the new identity has begun to take shape. It’s up to longtime manager Ben Olsen to determine in which position the versatile, attack-minded Flores can be most influential.
“The truth is with the national team—it’s just it’s a little strange—I feel very comfortable on the left wing," Flores says. "But with my past team [Liga MX's Monarcas Morelia], behind the target man or second striker I felt very comfortable in front of goal, and I think that also went well for me. But first we have to see what system they play in. Then talk to the manager to see what position. He sees where I can be more productive and make the call.”
But that’s for another day. Everything will come in time. For now, the 25-year-old Peruvian, who is lovingly nicknamed "Orejas" due to his large ears that stick out ever so slightly, sits admiring the field.
He looks over at the construction workers one more time and gives a wave.
And they wave back.
D.C. United’s landmark purchase of Flores (for a reported club-record fee of $5 million) represents a significant moment for Peruvians in MLS and the growing influx of key Peruvian talent in North America. Days after Flores’s arrival, Orlando City announced the signing of Peru’s No. 1 goalkeeper, Pedro Gallese, which now means that seven Peruvian internationals—key national squad members or those who have been called up in recent years (including for the 2018 World Cup)—now play in the league.
This is no coincidence, as the timing has been favorable for all involved. As a relatively young Peruvian team continues to improve under manager Ricardo Gareca (it reached the World Cup for the first time in 36 years in 2018 and made the final in last summer’s Copa America) and the league keeps turning to South America to find talent on the rise, buying Peruvian seemed to make sense for MLS clubs.
From reliable center back Alexander Callens (NYCFC) to promising talent such as Marcos López (San Jose Earthquakes), the league’s interest in the Peruvian market is at an all-time high. Flores, who steps into the marquee Designated Player spot that belonged to Rooney, has done his research on the league. Two of his closest friends are Seattle’s Raúl Ruidíaz and Portland’s Andy Polo—all three teamed together with Lima-based club Universitario and all three came to MLS after stints with Morelia—and questions about the league always came up when they got together during international windows.
“Thanks to my good friends Raúl and Andy, who have been with me since we were small, they always comment on how much they love this league," Flores says. "And I do my research. There are great players and staff in every team [in this league], and I think for Peruvians, coming here will help them grow as people, not just players. So, I arrive to this league knowing a lot about it.”
D.C. United’s interest in Flores started in 2018, back when the attacker was playing for Aalborg. It was his second stint in Europe after a failed tenure with Villarreal six years earlier. Flores had just returned to Denmark from the World Cup after starting every game in Russia and was looking for a new club. There was no drama with Aalborg, he says. The issue was more cultural, as Flores, born and raised in Lima, just couldn’t get accustomed to Danish life. In the end, D.C. United came in too late, as Morelia was already in advanced talks with Flores to replace Ruidíaz, who had moved to Seattle the same year.
Flores moved to Mexico, and with Morelia he blossomed, especially last season, when he helped the club reach the semifinals in the Liguilla. His ability to play behind the striker as well as on the left wing proved an asset. Flores became more of a threat and concluded his Liga MX career with 12 goals and six assists in 45 appearances.
Once the Apertura season ended and the holiday season arrived, D.C. United came knocking once again and finally, after some back-and-forth and agreeing to the transfer fee, the club offered a record five-year deal for his services, which reportedly includes annual earnings of $2.1 million.
Now that Flores is finally here, he has big goals for D.C. United, which naturally include silverware.
“The first objective is obviously reach first place in the table. The team is extremely determined about that,” Flores says. “You have to be involved in a team that is willing to always win, home or away, and then earn points to reach the first objective, which is making it to the playoffs and then continue to the final, which is what we want most.”
He takes a beat and smiles: “the glory.”
This type of step-by-step thinking and the way he sets specific goals for himself are mainly due to Gareca, who keeps coming up in conversation. Flores says he owes a tremendous amount to him. In fact, he wouldn’t even be in MLS if Gareca didn’t approve, and as he enters an important year with a new club, World Cup qualifiers and Copa America in the horizon, Flores reflects on everything he has learned from the Argentine manager.
“He changed my mentality," Flores says. "When you’re young, you have many ideas as a player. Many things go through your mind. But he came to change the mentality of the Peruvian footballer and Peruvian soccer. He made us feel like winners, even though we weren’t there yet when he started, he made us feel that could give more than what we were doing and he demanded the most he could from us in order to reach our long-term goals.
"At the start, it seemed difficult to qualify for a World Cup, especially since we didn’t play well in the first few matches. We couldn’t win. But he was very firm, clear and honest that we had a chance and it all really depended on us.”
Beyond the playing field, Flores’s arrival is significant for the Hispanic and Latinx community in the nation’s capital, and most importantly the local Peruvian diaspora, which is one of the most prominent in the nation. Montgomery County, for example, which borders D.C., is among the top 10 largest Peruvian-American communities in the U.S. and is within driving distance and public transportation access of Audi Field. So, if the club wants a packed stadium and an energized fan base, it would be smart to engage with and cater to this audience. Flores believes that mutual support from the local Peruvian community will add extra motivation.
“I hope they can support me," says Flores, who adds that he's always felt a special kind of home support when he's come to the U.S. with his national team. "I’m here now and near them, and I’m always going to give them the same affection that they offer me.
"I hope to reach victories and they in turn are also happy, because, really, if one Peruvian wins, then all Peruvians will be extremely happy.”