In the days leading up to the US men’s national team’s friendlies last week, Gaga Slonina was asked about the off-field, personal-life aspects of his wintertime move from Chicago Fire FC to Chelsea FC.
“The first few days were a bit difficult. Being away from home, away from family, it’s a bit unusual to kind of see that as my home now,” confessed the goalkeeper, who joined the English Premier League big-spenders on a reported $10 million deal (could reach $15 million).
“But being there for the last three weeks, I think it's something that, when you realize it's everything you dreamt of as a young kid, I think that the younger version of myself would be very proud of where I'm at at my age,” the homegrown export continued. “If I have that mindset that this is my home now, I'm going to do everything I can to be successful here. So I think it's the best thing I can do for myself and my family, who have made so many sacrifices for me to get to that moment.”
Readers could be forgiven for thinking Slonina is much older than the 18 years and eight months of age he actually is. In an industry of adults playing a children’s game – many of whom hardly seem to grow up at all – the Addison, Illinois native is one who’s surged ahead of schedule in so many ways.
“We've all heard the stories about Gaga and his maturity for his age,” said Nashville SC center back Walker Zimmerman with a smile on Friday. “That's something that I can definitely say I've seen from him. He's the guy who’s up early, cup of coffee, crossword out, probably reading all the newspapers in hand.
“When we're doing prep work, activation, sports training, rehab – he’s just a really good professional,” Zimmerman added of Slonina. “It's hard to see that kind of maturity from someone so young. So we're wishing him all the best as he continues to try and grow his game in Europe. But I think he's a guy who’s been very professional from the first time that he's representing the United States. Obviously we're looking forward to watching him progress.”
Taking your opportunity
That last sentence also describes the USMNT’s general outlook on this month’s gathering. The program that had already fielded the youngest lineups at last year’s World Cup got younger still, not only with the usual MLS-based prospects, but also several who’ve already made moves abroad like Slonina, Paxten Aaronson (19), Jonathan Gomez (19), Sam Rogers (23) and Matthew Hoppe (21).
These youngsters are presently on trajectories once vanishingly rare for US-reared prospects in European environments. A record seven players arrived at this January camp from overseas, and it is noteworthy so many clubs saw enough value in this eight-day gathering to voluntarily release them in midseason.
This USMNT experience, even with the caveats it carries, can only help them on the path forward.
“Talking with Coach before I came here – it came up, of course – and he was just super excited for me, super cool for me,” said Aaronson of his conversations with Oliver Glasner, his manager at his new club Eintracht Frankfurt after completing a reported $4 million move (plus add-ons and sell-on fee) to the German Bundesliga side from the Philadelphia Union in November.
“He thought it would be a great opportunity for me, especially to get my first senior team call-up. I spoke about it with the club and they thought it was the right moment, the right time for me to come here and make my senior team camp debut. They just thought it was good timing.”
Similarly, Slonina said Chelsea were “super proud,” “super happy” and “very supportive” about his call-up, which culminated in his USMNT debut vs. Serbia on Wednesday (2-1 loss). Considering young new arrivals like him often have to work and wait for long periods before being offered first-team match opportunities by their clubs, that match may provide fuel for the hard grind of the training ground in the months ahead.
“Hopefully I can just grow and get better and better,” Aaronson told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Saturday after making his USMNT bow vs. Colombia (0-0 draw). “From a crowd perspective and dueling situations, everything gets kind of ramped up more. You’re playing against better players, bigger players, more athletic players.”
Goal: Show you belong
Fans bothered by the Yanks’ failure to win either of the past week’s games could consider a different kind of scoreboard prioritized by interim coach Anthony Hudson and his staff: How many interesting talents just moved from ‘on the radar’ to ‘capped USMNTer with firsthand knowledge of the program.’
Aaronson epitomizes this. He lacked the nous to convert several dangerous sequences around the Colombian penalty area into a goal, yet takes away priceless educational value from 90-plus minutes of tenacious battling in an end-to-end international match.
“We've monitored him for a while,” said Hudson of the younger Aaronson brother. “He’s a high-potential young player. He has a lot of quality, he's a bright young player and we want to support him. This was a camp for this very reason – to look at players like this, to look at players like Paxten.
“I thought he did well tonight. I thought it was a tough game, I thought it was a very physical game, I thought it was a game of a lot of transition moments, which means especially in midfield, in transition, you need physicality, and there’s a lot of quick and physical players in there. But he never gave up, he kept going. And he had some really good moments in the game.”
The handful of veterans brought in to work alongside the kids and transmit the program’s established culture saw that process unfolding, too.
“Having your first camp can be nerve-wracking, there's a lot of nerves that go into on-the-field, off-the-field stuff,” said FC Dallas winger Paul Arriola. “As one of the veteran guys, just going in there and just being a good person, being a teammate, being a friend, getting to know them, get them out of their shell, I think really helped, and helped them feel comfortable to be able to express themselves.
“In the end, that's what we all want for all these guys that have so much talent, that are playing at the highest level: to be able to express themselves and show why they deserve to be part of the national team.”