Edison Flores signing shows DC United mean business after Wayne Rooney exit | Charles Boehm

Edison Flores Audi Field

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I don’t think it was a carefully-orchestrated move by D.C. United or Edison Flores or his people.

But as far as transfer leaks go, you can do a whole lot worse than having your new, high-caliber Peru national team winger’s first public image in your jersey be an apparent chance encounter with an admiring countryman at a Peruvian chicken joint in the Northern Virginia suburbs:

United confirmed the signing of the winger from Monarcas Morelia on Tuesday, reportedly making a long-term, eight-figure investment in one of the Liga MX upstarts’ top performers over the past year and an established Peru international who can create and finish from wide and central positions alike. That’s pretty damn close to what the Black-and-Red committed to bring Wayne Rooney to the U.S. capital, far and away the biggest outlay on any player in the club’s quarter-century of history.

So many observers will instinctively frame his arrival as a statement of intent in the wake of Rooney and Lucho Acosta’s offseason departures.

There’s validity to that – Flores is a big signing, one of several prominent names linked to D.C. this winter, along with Santos Laguna string-puller Brian Lozano and somewhat lesser lights like Ecuadorian playmaker Christian Aleman and Venezuelan striker Gelmin Rivas. They’ve already closed a deal for promising young Estonian marksman Erik Sorga, nominally a signing for their USL Championships side Loudoun United, but someone I suspect will be wearing their MLS kit well before season’s end.

To put it bluntly: United needed to make some moves, not only to shore up their squad but also to keep tickets sales turning over, and appear to be doing their level best to get them over the finish line. We still don’t know what the full picture will look like, but United – like several other old-line MLS clubs – do seem to have internalized the new reality that anyone in this league with trophy aspirations needs to spend some money, build a better mousetrap, or both.

It’s still pretty surprising that D.C. are in this spot at the start of 2020. Rooney was to be the flagship of a new era for a proud club that had to endure some very lean years – a lean decade, really – as they sought and finally got a new stadium to call their own. A global household name like his doesn’t come around all that often, particularly not on the performance-based deal the English legend signed as he arrived to help christen Audi Field in the summer of 2018.

With Rooney getting his groove back post-Everton, Acosta proving the perfect foil, Bill Hamid returning to mind the nets and a solid supporting cast doing its part, DCU looked pretty fearsome down the home stretch of that season. Even after a gut-punch Audi MLS Cup Playoffs loss at home, the outlines of a new identity for a transformed club in a rapidly changing city appeared to be taking shape.

Then everything fell apart with the two tentpole attractions (LuchoRoo, we barely knew ye) and now D.C. find themselves sifting through their own tea leaves again. But signings like Flores’ – combined with a slow but steady pivot towards an academy system that was starved of investment in the latter years at RFK Stadium – could go a long way.

As a DMV resident since 2003, I can attest to the area’s significant Peruvian flavor – expatriates and descendants with ties to the South American nation make up one of the biggest chunks of the Latinx population here, alongside those representing El Salvador, Bolivia and Honduras.

Over United’s quarter-century of history, members of those communities have occasionally had some of their own to cheer on in Black-and-Red, the likes of Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, Raul Diaz Arce and Andy Najar. But it’s been many years since the club mounted a real, sustained drive to connect with Hispanic fans specifically – even as El Salvador, for example, made RFK “Cuscatlan Norte,” the de facto northern branch of their national stadium.

This isn’t a “sign Jorge Campos, gift him a Ferrari and watch Mexico fans flock to the Rose Bowl” situation, mind you. Flores isn’t being acquired because of his nationality, and if D.C. somehow convince Santos Laguna to part with Lozano, his Uruguayan roots won’t be a key factor. The DMV’s Latinx soccer fans are too discerning to be instantly charmed by a couple of familiar faces donning the local team’s kit.

That said, fans and pundits (including this one) have long wondered what kind of upside might unfold if the Black-and-Red ushered that sector of the community into the fold more consistently and holistically. Homegrowns are a big part of this, too. United have inked some blue-chip youth prospects of late, like Moses Nyeman, Donovan Pines, Antonio Bustamante, Griffin Yow and now Kevin Paredes, a livewire 16-year-old who I’m told will be unveiled as their latest HGP any day now:

These kids represent a pretty decent cross-section of the DMV’s wildly diverse, soccer-mad population. If their potential can be meshed with the quality of imports like Flores and the reliability of an existing core anchored by guys like Steve Birnbaum and Felipe Martins, then D.C. might just have got the makings of something big, in 2020 and beyond.