Major League Soccer

Gabriel Slonina on his Chicago Fire breakthrough & international future

Chris Smith
Slonina has enjoyed a wonderful breakout campaign with the Fire.
Slonina has enjoyed a wonderful breakout campaign with the Fire.

Exclusive - If there's one positive for the Chicago Fire to take from their disappointing 2021 campaign, it's the emergence of Gabriel Slonina.

The goalkeeping prospect started the last 11 games of the season ahead of Bobby Shuttleworth. On his debut against NYCFC, he became the youngest goalkeeper in MLS history (17 years and 81 days), and the youngest to keep a clean sheet - he ended the campaign with four clean sheets.

For Slonina, success has so far come down to his meticulous methods of preparation.

"Long before the game, I was doing the preparation work of getting in early, leaving last," Slonina told 90min in an exclusive interview. "I was trying to do everything properly as a professional to make sure that when I do get that moment, I'm ready for it."

Slonina - or 'Gaga' as he's nicknamed - was ready for it. Not only did the teenager keep a clean sheet, but he also ended the match with four saves to earn a spot on the official MLS Team of the Week.

“Once that moment came when I knew I was going to be playing versus New York, I wasn't I wasn't nervous at all," Slonina recalled. "I woke up to the same routine that I always have for every game, because I had always prepared for every game like I was playing. So it wasn't anything new. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

"I think once I did get into that game, I was a little bit nervous, I wanted to play well and had that performance anxiety. But once I made that first save, everything started to flow well.”

Any nerves that did creep in can be forgiven, especially considering Slonina was unfortunate enough to have his car break down en route to Soldier Field.

"I was just driving on the highway and, of course, the day I'm playing, my car has to start... I don't even know what to call it. I was stepping on the gas but it wasn't going," Slonina laughed.

Luckily, and only following a dangerous traversal across part of the highway, Slonina was able to jump into an UBER and made it to the ground ahead of time. The incident was completely forgotten about after the match, replaced by joy and pride in a top-class debut performance.

Slonina is the youngest-ever MLS goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet and save a penalty.
Slonina is the youngest-ever MLS goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet and save a penalty.

"I was buzzing. It was an amazing feeling to start and get a clean sheet," he said of his feelings after the NYCFC match. "A win would have been better but, you know, having that performance and making sure that I engraved that into the city's mind, that I'm a homegrown, and I can play well and perform well for the city. It was an amazing feeling. I probably got like two hours of sleep that day because I was just I was so happy with the way things went.”

Slonina's quick rise is made all the more remarkable by the fact he still has to balance his professional life with the Fire alongside online schooling, making sure he completes his education. Though he admitted it can sometimes be tough to balance the two different universes he now operates in, Slonina is frank about how it "needs to get done".

"It is a little bit difficult some days. You know, you're getting into that flow when sometimes you have two games a week, it's a little bit hard to find some time to get on instead of just taking the time to relax and recover," Slonina admits.

"But obviously, it needs to get done. I think part of it is having an education as well. You know, there's life outside of soccer and we need to be prepared for it, so I think it's just one of those things that some days might be a little bit harder than others but you just need to get on and get it done.”

By now, you're probably wondering how someone born in 2004, who only turned 17 midway through this year, can be so calm, measured, and mature. One of the hallmarks of any successful person is good role models and, in Slonina's case, he's taking inspiration from the very best.

“Players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, just seeing the things that they do on a daily basis, that level of greatness is something that I want to instill into my daily life and into my game," Slonina responded when asked about the biggest influences on his career so far.

“Cristiano Ronaldo I think was more of that hardworking presence. You know, he wasn't gifted with all the abilities in the world, but he worked every single day to the best of his ability, working hard to make sure that he was being professional and trying to improve every single day. Staying after training to get a few more shots in, which I correlated to saving shots. 

“Just that mentality of always working your hardest and pushing yourself because they were also in a situation that I'm in right now, they weren't at the top where they wanted to be or where they are right now. They started from the bottom and then slowly, they continued to work no matter what happens, keeping that positive mentality, trusting the path they're on, and always getting to where they are now.

“A lot of players that are at the top right now, Edouard Mendy, Ederson, goalkeepers in the Premier League and Bundesliga. Just their level of greatness is what pushes me. I want to be like them.”

Slonina's great start with the Fire has been rewarded with a first call-up to the United States U-20 national team. The youngster describes it as an "honor" to get international recognition so quickly, but he's not letting it steal his focus or go to his head.

"I just have to continue to perform well and make sure that every game I take seriously so that consistency and drive to continue to get better every single game is there because consistency as a goalkeeper is super important", Slonina said. "You want to be reliable and make sure that your team is comfortable with you in the back. But yeah, it's an honor to be called into the U-20 international team and I'm obviously going to give my all.”

Slonina's international future isn't straightforward, though. Born to Polish parents who emigrated to the United States when they were 21, the 17-year-old still has the option to represent White and Reds. An option he is "super open to".

“Right now, I'm pretty 50-50," Slonina responded when asked about his international preference. "I want to make sure that I make the right decision and where I'm most comfortable at. So a lot of factors are going to determine what decision I make, but I think that's a long way from here. I'm just going to continue to see how things go and make sure that I make the right decision in the end.”

He continued: “I had a call from Poland a long time ago but things didn’t work out and I never really got engaged in the Polish youth environment, but right now I'm super open to it. 

“I grew up in the USA. A lot of things will determine if I want to make that decision going with Poland or the USA but I think that's a long way off. Right now, all I can do is focus on this club and making sure I'm giving that performance that gets you that call, which is the most important part.”

On the prospect of 'crossing the pond', Slonina said: "The biggest tournaments and leagues are in Europe, like the Champions League and the Euros and everything. But right now, I like to be in the moment, making sure that I'm doing what I can for this club. I think looking down in the future is something I can't control. All I can control is how I'm going to be here right now. You know, making sure that I give my all for this club and getting us to on that winning side of things and turning things around finally.”

Even though Slonina revealed he grew up watching the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Real Madrid, he gives a surprising answer when asked who his "dream club" would be, re-affirming his focus on the present.

"I think right now, Chicago Fire is my dream club," he said, with a grin on his face. "You know, being the best goalkeeper I can be for this club is my focus."