Andres Flores: “We knew that we had our strengths and we just tried to work on that and improve on other things that we did well during the year.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
ATLANTA — So what if Atlanta United enters MLS Cup as the favorites. That hasn’t fazed Portland Timbers midfielder Andres Flores one bit.
In fact, the one-time Cosmos relishes the underdog role for his team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Saturday as the Timbers have produced upset after upset during the Major League Soccer playoffs.
Directed by former Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese, the Timbers beat FC Dallas in the knockout round and then defeated Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting Kansas City in the conference semifinals and final, respectively, as the fifth-seeded team in the Western Conference.
“Well, I think we realized that being the underdog didn’t let us feel bad or feel like less than the other teams,” Flores said at the Atlanta United training facility Thursday. “We knew that we had our strengths and we just tried to work on that and improve on other things that we did well during the year. I think we did it in a good way. We are happy with the year and we’re going to try to do the same [Saturday].”
The El Salvadoran international added that he felt the team was in “the best mood.”
“We’re all excited to be here,” he said. “We’re all happy. We’re going step by step, day by day, but we’re very happy to be here. We’re looking forward to Saturday and we’re very focused on what we want.”
The Timbers didn’t start out well under Savarese, who had coached the Cosmos from 2013-2017. The team went 0-3-2 before it got its act together.
“It was a difficult beginning for us because we started five games away and against very good teams,” Flores said. “It was very difficult. We didn’t get enough points, we didn’t get the results that we wanted. I think it was an important moment for us, too. The coaching staff had to make some changes in the way we were working. After that, everything settled down and everything started to work out. It was difficult, but at the same time it was important because it’s just the beginning of the season. It helped us put the right things together and start working good.”
The coaching staff has been led by Savarese, who guided the Cosmos to three North American Soccer League championships during his five-year tenure, and another final appearance as well. Flores, who has made one playoff appearances as a starter, has been a part of three consecutive championship games — all with the Cosmos. He was on the winning side in the 2015 and 2016 and reached the final last year.
“Gio is a very intelligent person,” Flores said. “He’s very smart in the way he works. He’s very passionate. We all know that. He had to adapt to what we had. At the beginning, he took some time to realize what he had and the players the way they worked. After he took the time to adapt, he realized what we had to do. He put in a lot of work. he took us here. It’s very important for him because he deserves [credit].”
Flores, 28, who played three seasons with the Cosmos, received a call from Savarese last winter, telling the midfielder he was interested in him.
“I was very happy,” Flores said. “I was excited.”
Moving to MLS had its challenges because there are 23 teams and every team has several excellent players.
“It’s been more challenging because there’s a lot of way different ways of playing,” he said. “There’s a lot of teams that play different players. So, you just have to be open to whatever situation you play. Any league is not easy to play so it took me some time, but after that I felt very comfortable with the way the team played. So, it just comfortable and I had fun.”
During the regular season, Flores performed in 26 games and started 11 for Portland. He scored his first and only goal in the 2-1 season-finale loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Flores, who has forged a reputation with his passing and overall midfield play, said the goal was key for his self-confidence and his ability to contribute to the team.
“It’s important,” he said. “I’m more like a playmaker. My thing is just not goals. It was very important for self-confidence because i always try ot help the team in any way I can and scoring a goal, of course, is an important way to help the team. I’m very happy and very proud about it.”
The past 11 months have been special to Flores, who joined a new team and became an American citizen during the summer. Actually, it is a dual citizenship with El Salvador, which will allow him to continue to play internationally for the country of his birth.
“It’s important because my parents did a very big effort to come here,” said Flores, who now calls Houston home during the offseason. “Becoming a citizen is like thanking them for all the effort they have done for me, for all the support and for all the opportunities that coming here opened for me. So I feel very happy and proud to be a United States citizen.”