Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina turned heads across MLS and overseas by winning Chicago Fire FC’s starting goalkeeper spot last fall with a string of composed performances including three wins, three clean sheets and several brave displays against Audi MLS Cup Playoff-bound opponents. The most impressive number of all, however, was his age: He did all this at just 17, in his first extended run at the first-team level.
The homegrown has rapidly become known for maturity beyond his years, and he showed more of the same Tuesday in his first media availability since rejoining the Fire from his first US men’s national team call-up last month.
It started with the glimpse he offered of his daily mental and physical regimen.
“I think it's about all the routines I've established,” said Slonina. “Meditation is a big part of constantly staying in that focused mindset. It's a daily thing that I do in the morning to make sure that that I'm present, feeling everything around me and making sure that I can give my all for every single shot, every single pass. Because obviously that focus and everything is what will excel you to have that best athletic performance.
“I think the routine you establish yourself is how you can stay in the moment and just continue to work and give your all.”
With his first senior international experience in hand, former USMNT greats already comparing him to the likes of Gigi Buffon and transfer gossip linking him to big clubs like Juventus as European heavyweights zoom in on him as a serious target, Slonina batted away questions on those topics with the message discipline of a seasoned vet.
“Right now, the main focus is about this preseason and finishing preseason strong, so I'm not a type of player to look too much into the future,” said the Addison, Illinois product. “I want to be here, present, now, because obviously that's what's most important. But we never know what the future holds. So I think I'm just going to continue to give my all every single day in training, making sure that I'm helping guys on and off the field to, again, have the most successful season that we can for this club.”
Though he pretty clearly has pole position on Chicago’s No. 1 job – the club literally just bequeathed him the No. 1 jersey – Slonina isn’t even taking that for granted. He does, however, buy into the Fire’s high hopes for a 2022 resurgence behind head coach Ezra Hendrickson and midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri.
“I think I still have a lot to prove. I don't like to think of me as the number-one starter now, I still have to give my all in training every single day and make sure that I'm putting on performances and training as well as possible,” said Slonina.
“I’m feeling great about the season. I love the energy that the coaching staff and the guys are bringing. I think the attitude is there, the right attitude and mentality at training every single day,” he added. “I think that this season's going to be very successful and I think that we're going to achieve some big things this year.”
Slonina’s skill set is a prototypical one for high-ceiling goalkeeping prospects and his ascension to the senior national team at such an early age only amplifies the buzz around him. He also holds a European passport via his Polish heritage, and remains eligible to represent both nations, all of which adds up to a wealth of attractive options should he maintain his current trajectory.
As humble as he endeavors to be, journeying through a World Cup qualifying window alongside the United States’ top players seems to have provided further fuel for that progress.
“It's a different type of playstyle than club level. So I think just having that speed and awareness to adapt to those players, seeing how fast they're coming in, knowing what to do with the ball before receiving it – everything is like half a second quicker,” he explained.
“You're getting guys from the best parts of the world coming in and playing so I think being a little bit calmer on the ball, that explosiveness, those things will come just feeling that comfort and getting those repetitions in. So I think I can improve on everything, my shot-stopping ability, my decision making, my calmness on the ball … I've talked with the coaching staff from there about specific things I want to work on, but all in all, it's about improving everything.”
Wherever this ride takes him, Slonina and the Fire can look back on his rise as a diamond plucked from the coal of a largely frustrating 2021 campaign, a positive legacy from former head coach Raphael Wicky’s final weeks in charge.
“Game experience is most important for a young player’s development, so I think getting those games in at the end of the season was very big for me,” said Slonina. “It built a lot of my confidence and made sure that I was just getting those games as well, because we train, but the game experience is much more difficult – the game decision-making. So I think having those 11 games was a big part of my development, and I'm going to continue to build off of that.”