Weekend Focus: Gabriel Slonina, MLS's youngest starting goalkeeper ever, earns trust with his work

As the 2021 MLS season draws to a close, the Chicago Fire is a team that finds itself in a transition. Big decisions await in the coming months regarding key players and a new coach. One player that the team doesn’t have to decide on is young goalkeeper Gabriel (“Gaga”) Slonina, who the Fire hope will have a bright future with the organization.

The Fire organization has always held out high hopes for Slonina and at the time it signed him to a homegrown contract in March 2019. Slonina was just 14 and became the second youngest signing in MLS history and the youngest signing ever for the Chicago Fire.

For the next two and a half years, Slonina has continue to impress at the youth and reserve team levels. In 2021, however, he achieved significant milestones when he began starting for the club’s first team. Such milestones were historic to the league.

On Aug. 5, an injury to Bobby Shuttleworth opened the door for Slonina to start that night against New York City FC. In doing so, Slonina became the youngest starting goalkeeper in league history at just 81 days past his 17th birthday.

In that debut, Slonina earned a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw.

“I always believed in myself,” Slonina told Soccer America. “That's super important in a young player to always believe in themselves and to continue to put in the work when people aren't watching, like going to the gym and stretching while everyone's leaving and then doing an ice bath - they add on every day and get you better and better… It's really difficult for a young player to get involved in the first team and then start to perform and play well and gain the trust from their teammates.”

“When I played against New York, I didn't stop anything I had done before to get to that point,” he added.

So far, Slonina has made six appearances for Chicago which include three shutouts. In a 3-1 loss to Toronto FC, Slonina stopped Yeferson Soteldo on a penalty. This weekend, Slonina and the Fire will have a difficult task heading to New England to face the league’s best team.

"I think everyone's proud of him,” Fire defender Mauricio Pineda said. “He's been training really well, he's always preparing and getting ready for every day. When he is behind me on the field I feel like there's a 30-year-old man behind me. His voice is heard, he's always loud, he's communicating so I don't feel like there's a 17-year-old goalkeeper playing behind me when he's there. So that gives off a lot of confidence for himself and for us and as a backline, so really happy for him.”

It is rare for a goalkeeper of Slonina’s age to earn first-team minutes in any league for a variety of reasons. For one, that position often sees players remain into their prime years well into their 30’s and there is little rotation. Another reason is that it also requires a lot of trust from a team’s coaching staff and players that the goalkeeper will have the maturity and reliability that the position requires.

Often times, the goalkeeper is older than most players on the field. It’s a stark contrast in the case of Slonina, he was less than half the age of one of the team’s defenders in former U.S. World Cup veteran Jonathan Bornstein.

“That trust that's seen on the field from the older players was developed long, long before I was on the field,” Slonina explained. “They saw how much work I put in. I'm super passionate and professional about this profession, so I think that trust was gained far back before you guys first saw me on the field... I don't treat it as if they're 20 years older than me, and they don't treat it as if I'm 20 years younger than them. When you're on a field, none of that matters. That's super important.”

For Bornstein, he has been impressed with the quality and professional Slonina has shown since getting starts with the first team.

"For him, getting minutes is very important for his development. I think, not only is he getting the games and development, but he's also playing very well," Bornstein said. "I think you know it's hard anytime you're getting your first games. I think he's also extremely professional on and off the field. I think he's got a huge future in front of him, so I'm excited for him to get these minutes. I think any player gains experience the more games they get… Overall, though, he's doing a great job and you've got to applaud his performances.”

In 2021, Slonina has simply had to be more mature beyond his years. Being both a professional and a teenage goalkeeper have forced him to grow up. Slonina, however, has seen this maturity carry over to his life off the field. He’s still a high school student, but that is not how he views himself.

“I don't view myself as a high schooler anymore. I got into this mindset of really taking this job as a real opportunity to be something in this world,” Slonina said. “It's a shift of mentality that is something I have to take very seriously now. It's huge because the way you perceive yourself is how you act.”

Slonina grew up in Addison, Illinois, and soccer was a passion for him. His older brother, Nicholas Slonina, has also signed a homegrown deal with the Fire. Their parents are from Tarnow, Poland where the sport is an important part of life. He and his brother hold Polish passports and have a lot of family back in Poland. Slonina feels his heritage has played a big role in helping him get to this point.

“Seeing such professional players on the Polish national team is such a huge motivator,” Slonina said. “Seeing players like [Robert] Lewandowski perform at such high levels and consistently, it's such a big inspiration and motivator for me to do to keep growing, improving, and doing everything the right way.”

Moving forward, Slonina is likely to be a big part of the U.S. U-20 national team that is schedule to begin its 2023 cycle with a tournament in Mexico in November. Next summer, the team will participate in a tournament that will serve as qualifying for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.

Slonina has represented the United States youth national teams before at U-15 through U-18 levels but this U-20 level would be a huge step up. His breakthrough at the Chicago Fire puts him at a unique starting point for a U-20 team and he should be in a position to be a big player on a team that already has a lot of breakout players throughout the league.

“It's awesome to see players my age breaking through,” Slonina said on his generation of players. “When I was younger, I would see kids my age now break through. I would think that I want to get there once in my life. Now that it's happening, it's a dream come true.”

“For sure, representing the national team,” he added on the national team. “That's one of the biggest accomplishments a player could have in his career. You don't know who's going to be on the roster yet or if I will get called up. I'm going to continue to give my all to get there and perform. It's an honor to represent the country and play for the fans who cheer us on with the US national team. That tournament is going to be huge -- now they're also qualifying for the Olympics. I'll be honored if I get the call. I'll give my best, like always.”

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