After completing a dream move to Chelsea, Gabriel Slonina is feeling on top of the world right now, but he knows the real work is just beginning.
At just 18 years old, Slonina put pen to paper on a stunning $15m move to Stamford Bridge at the start of August; a record fee for the Chicago Fire and the fifth-most expensive outgoing transfer in MLS history.
But before he can even think about donning Chelsea colors, Slonina has the rest of the 2022 MLS season with the Fire to worry about. Right now, the goalkeeper's sole focus is on leaving Chicago with the perfect parting gift.
"Obviously the biggest goal is to win MLS cup. I want to leave Chicago with a memory that they'll never forget," Slonina said in an interview with 90min. "I'm going to work my hardest with the team, with myself, with all the training staff to make sure that that becomes possible because I really believe in this team, I believe in how hard we're working and the results are starting to come our way. And obviously, we are above that Playoff line right now and it's hard to get there, but it's even harder to stay there. So I think that leaving the club with the MLS cup would be a dream come true."
The negotiation process for Slonina was a long one and it ultimately took a lot of work from all parties to get the deal over the line. As reported by 90min, the likes of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Bayern Munich all showed interest, as did clubs from Serie A.
So much attention and interest would be an easy source of distraction for most teenagers, but Slonina kept his mental discipline and found ways to stay focused.
"There was a lot going on at once and I think that I went through a little bit of that struggle period. But it's all about making sure that you stay focused and using the tools that got you to that point to make sure that you can continue on performing and bounce back," said Slonina.
"That's just a part of the sports journey, you're going to have times when a lot of things are super chaotic and others when things are calm and you're able to focus on your performances. But I think being able to manage that with meditation, staying present, always staying in the moment, and making sure you're doing the right things to always be performing your best is what's most important."
"It's Chelsea. They're one of the best clubs in the world."- Gabriel Slonina on his transfer.
While Slonina has to keep his eye on the immediate prize in Chicago, you could easily forgive him a few moments to get lost in the excitement of signing for Chelsea.
Over the past 17 years, the Blues have been one of the giants of European soccer, lifting a multitude of Premier League, Champions League, and Europa League titles, and mopping up domestic cups.
That track record of success and the 'plan' they laid out before him were what swayed Slonina's decision when given the pick of multiple titans of the sport.
"It's Chelsea. They're one of the best clubs in the world and they have so much history behind them," Slonina declared.
He added: "I really liked the plan they also had for me. It seemed like they were super interested and they cared for me a lot and I think that's super important. The connections you can establish just by being on the phone, I think is important. And I felt like they were really emotionally invested in me and really wanted me to be a part of the club. That stood out to me and that's obviously a place where you want to go, you want to feel welcomed, you want to feel like you're at home.
"Joining Chelsea is obviously a dream come true and also having that feeling of being welcomed from the very start I think is super important as well."
Given the reputation of Chelsea's 'loan army' and the perception that they're a club that can often struggle to develop players, Slonina's move is obviously going to be met with some skepticism. Not least when comparing how fellow American Matt Miazga struggled in west London, while Christian Pulisic has been in and out of the side since joining from Borussia Dortmund in 2019.
But Slonina is clear in his conviction to become 'one of the world's best goalkeepers'. He knows that wherever he ended up, there would be criticism of his decision, but as long as he fulfills his goals, the doubters will be silenced.
"I think wherever I went, there would've been critics saying that was the wrong move," Slonina said. "It's one thing to say something. I say that I want to become one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world, but it's another thing to do it. And I think that when I do it, I'll want to look back and read the messages that the critics are putting out saying that all the moves I made were bad.
"Critics will always try to critique you. But you are the one that's making those tough decisions and they're not easy, no matter how amazing they may seem. Every decision is a tough decision. You're leaving your family, you're leaving the life you lived behind to pursue your dream.
"So I think that, just staying true to myself, confident in my ability, and making sure that I continue to do all the right things that got me to this moment, because that's the most important thing, right? Just to keep improving and, prove to yourself because you don't have to prove anything to anyone else. Just prove to yourself that you made the right choice. And you can back that up with your hard work and your performances on the field."
And Slonina doesn't have to look far for inspiration when he arrives in London.
Current Chelsea No.1 Edouard Mendy also came from a fairly modest background with the likes of Le Harve, Cherbourg, and Reims to eventually become one of the best goalkeepers in Europe right now.
"I know his story, I've read about it and it's unbelievable, where he came from and how he's progressed as a professional and as a human," Slonina said of Mendy. "It's going to be unreal to work with him and have him be a teammate because it's Edouard Mendy, one of the best goalkeepers on the planet right now.
"So coming from his background and seeing where he got with the work he put in, I think it's an amazing inspiration to me and to all the kids around that are not even just goalkeepers, not even just football, but in the sports world. It's amazing to read stories like that and then to see how far players can really come."
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