BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Know somebody close to the New York Cosmos, and you’ve heard the names thrown around. Real Madrid legend Raúl. Spain world champion Marcos Senna. Venezuelan legend Juan Arango. They’re three of the many stars the NASL club brought in to help brand the team during this, its second incarnation.
Andrés Flores has played with them all, but long before the new Portland Timbers midfielder set foot in New York, he was used to being surrounded by talent. At 16 years old, the El Salvadorian left his home to take up life in the famed River Plate academy in Argentina. There he played with current Tottenham attacker Erik Lamela, Milan defender Mateo Musacchio, and FC Dallas All-Star Mauro Diaz.
Flores has been all over the world pursuing soccer – from Central to South America and Europe, before moving to North America – and while he’s always been in the company of some greats, the most important connection he’s made during that time may be the one that brought him to the Portland Timbers, for whom he made his Major League Soccer debut this weekend.
“When we met each other and we had time together, we made that connection,” is what Flores says about Giovanni Savarese, the man who coached him for four seasons in New York before taking the head coaching job with the Timbers. Among the players Savarese oversaw with the Cosmos, Flores is the only one he’s brought to Portland.
“That’s a reward for all the work that I did over there,” Flores says, when asked about his connection with Savarese.
“Outside of the field or our job, we have a good relationship … and we put it into work, too.”
While Flores’ connection with Portland’s new head coach is important, it’s far from the only reason he’s in the Rose City. In fact, Flores has been in Timbers green before.
“That was the first year for Portland [in MLS],” he said, recalling his time as a trialist with the team in Southern California during the 2011 preseason. “I was young. I think I was, like, 21. I went for tryouts for a week. It was a good experience.”
Now, Flores returns a much different player.
Fifty-nine times, the midfielder has represented his country on the international level, debuting in 2008 at the age of 17. And over the last four seasons with the Cosmos, Flores proved to be one of the team’s most productive and reliable players, scoring 10 times in 95 all-competition appearances, helping the NASL club to two league titles.
Now 27, Flores’ move to MLS is the culmination of a long journey. Thrust into the unparalleled culture of Buenos Aires soccer, Flores’ passion for the sport went to new levels.
“Over there, I grew up with [the game],” he remembers of his time in Argentina, “and I learned how to be around people for whom soccer is very important, to them. I learned how to respect the sport, how to respect soccer and everything that is involved with it.
“In El Salvador, the people love soccer. It’s their first sport in the country. People love it.
“But in Argentina, it’s something different. People live thinking about. I think, 99 percent of people in Argentina want to be soccer players.
“That’s why it’s different, and that’s how you learn to respect the fans and the players and the sport. Because you know that you have to opportunity, and you have to take advantage of that.”
At 18 years old, when he returned to El Salvador, Flores was determined to do just that, turning professional with Salvadorian power Isidro Metapán and begin a process that would deliver four league titles from 2009 to 2011.
That success brought Flores a move abroad, where he debuted with Denmark’s Vitborg FF in 2012. But injuries slowed down the then 22-year-old, providing him with the first setback for his career. After one season in Europe, Flores was back with Metapán, looking to get his career back on course.
Having already experienced success in El Salvador, though, Flores was primed for another challenge. That’s when the Cosmos came along. Although the team was playing in the United States’ second division, it had a global reputation, as well as a number of talents would could still be playing at higher levels.
At the time, Raúl and Senna were already in the team, and Arango and Croatian international Niko Kranjcar en route. But one of the bigger draws would prove to be the 30-time Venezuelan international the team had along the bench, one who’d shepherd Flores into the prime of his career.
“Yes, I think we do [have a bond],” Flores says, having trouble bringing his connection with Savarese to words. “We always talk and have a good relationship with our families, because Gio is just a very nice guy.”
That kindness didn’t translate into immediate playing time, though. Although Flores was an established international by the time he arrived in New York, his place in the team wasn’t assured.
That, in the long run, proved to be a virtue, as the fight he showed to claim a spot helped forge the bond with his new coach.
“When I got to Cosmos, I went there, and it took me a couple of weeks or months to win a position with the starters,” he remembered, when asked how a proved himself in New York. “I just worked hard. I always put myself in a position where I have to work. I never took things for granted, and I think Gio liked that.”
Flores’ hard work isn’t limited to the soccer field. During his time in New York, the former Cosmos earned his Master of Business Administration through Real Madrid University, connecting with the Spanish school through one of the club’s most famous ambassadors.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve also tried to study and try to learn a lot of things,” Flores explained. “When I was with the Cosmos, I had Raúl there, as a teammate. When I found out there was an MBA in Real Madrid University, I just talked to him and asked him about it. He said a lot of good things. I just started doing it, and I loved it.”
Over his four seasons in New York, Flores also progressed on the field, so much so that on Jan. 24, 2018—40 days after the Timbers named Savarese head coach—Flores was signed by Portland.
On Sunday, Flores made his MLS debut, coming on in the 84th minute of the Timbers’ 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy.
“This one is very special,” Flores said, comparing his Portland debut to those he made in El Salvador, Denmark and New York. "Because of everything. Because of the team I’m representing. And knowing that the fans have a lot of love for the team. I know there’s a big responsibility for us, because we need to try and win every game for them.”
Amid a midfield that includes Diego Valeri, Diego Chara and David Guzmán, it’s unclear how much playing time Flores will get, but the fact that he’s got any minutes this early in the season speaks to his value. Just as was the case in New York, Flores will have to prove himself and fight through to win time in the squad.
It’s been the reality of Flores’ entire career, having to play through the shadows of giants, yet if anybody knows about his capacity to break through, it’s the man that brought Flores to Oregon.