BRIDGEVIEW, Ill.—It’s a story that’s been shared in snippets or fragments over the past year or so, but it’s worth highlighting here because of what it might become. If (or when) Gabriel Slonina is the next iconic American goalkeeper—if he achieves his ambition and becomes the very best in the world—then what happened on I-290 in August 2021 is going to evolve from incident to allegory, to something resembling a comic book hero’s origin story. It’s just too perfect.
So before it starts to feel mythical, like a parable crafted to summarize Slonina’s unique temperament and rise to stardom, let’s get the facts down.
An injury to veteran Bobby Shuttleworth meant that Slonina, the 17-year-old backup known to all as “Gaga,” was going to play for the Chicago Fire against New York City FC. A member of the Fire’s academy since the age of 10, Slonina turned pro at 14, and just three years later he was set to become the youngest starting goalkeeper in MLS history. Just about everything Slonina did or dreamed during his childhood in suburban Addison, Ill., was geared toward reaching that milestone. He was so prepared, in fact, that he was able to navigate complications and adversity no one could’ve seen coming.
“It’s about 1:15 to Soldier Field with traffic. So I’m like 20 minutes into the drive, and my car starts jolting back and forth,” Slonina recalls. “It’s the first time something like this happened. So I’m pressing the gas, and the throttle’s not moving, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, you gotta be joking.’”
Slonina maneuvered his broken-down BMW onto the shoulder and called the club.
“It’s a summer day. I’m starting to sweat in my car, you know? So I get out of the car, and I’m on the highway, in the middle of the highway,” he says.
“[The Fire] call me an Uber in this abandoned parking lot. So I have to run across the highway because there’s multiple sections to get to this parking lot. So I’m running across the highway and there’s trucks and semis coming, and I have to run through these weeds and everything,” he continues.
The Uber came. Slonina called his father to relay details to a towing company and arrived at Soldier Field on time. He’d had his license for a little more than a year and had endured a young driver’s nightmare scenario on the biggest day of his life. But Gaga barely flinched.
“I was just like, ‘This is not gonna throw me off. I’m not gonna let this affect me,’” he says.
It didn’t. Slonina faced 15 shots, made four saves and earned his first shutout in a 0–0 draw against the eventual MLS champs. The least certain thing about the whole evening wound up being how he’d get home (his agent, Jaime Garcia, was there and gave him a lift).
“He was always showing up 20 to 30 minutes earlier, so if something like that did happen he would still be on time. He’s just a consummate professional,” Fire goalkeeper coach Adin Brown explains.
The car trouble was no omen. It was a test of the composure and confidence that Slonina had already forged through years of meticulous discipline and devotion. And it revealed the qualities that, just a year later, would help lift him to the cusp of the sport’s biggest stage.
“If you look at everything he does, from the time he gets here at 7 a.m., to his routine up until training and after training, to his consistency of shutting off his phone and getting the proper rest he needs,” Brown adds. “He reads a ton. He meditates. He journals—all these things that he’s doing are super impressive. You can see why he’s having success—because this kid is super dialed in. He knows what he wants. He wants to be the best goalkeeper in the world.”
All that, plus an ideal frame and elite reflexes, sparked a recruiting race among a handful of soccer’s biggest clubs and two countries, Slonina’s native U.S. and his parents’ homeland, Poland. That having been resolved in Chelsea and the U.S.’s favor, Slonina this month has enjoyed a preview of what’s to come. After finishing up the season with the Fire, Slonina spent time in London getting acclimated to Chelsea. It’s still not clear, at least publicly, what his responsibilities will be once he’s eligible to play in January. A loan seems likely, either back to Chicago or somewhere in England or Europe.
Regardless of the near-term destination, Slonina says he’s confident there’s a plan in place and that Chelsea is going to take care of a player whose transfer fee could reach a reported $15 million. That’s the second-most paid for an American MLS homegrown (behind Ricardo Pepi).
“A lot of clubs had offers and everything, but I think Chelsea was the clearest. I think they gave me the best plan about how they wanted for me to progress, grow as a professional and as a person,” Slonina explains at the Fire’s training facility outside Chicago. “They gave the clearest idea of what they wanted for me this year, next year, the year after that. I really liked the talks I had with them. So I think that’s why [Chelsea] was the best decision.”
Slonina turned 18 in May, and if he winds up staying in London, he’s looking forward to getting his own place, doing his own cooking and perhaps getting his own dog. That’s part of growing up—the next stage in a young adult’s journey. Despite what promises to be a massive step forward, he’s also willing to start again from the bottom. Slonina reveled in his year-plus in goal for his hometown team, playing in front of friends and family and serving as a flesh-and-blood reminder of soccer’s prospects in the Windy City. But he’s a long way from that status at Chelsea. And that’s O.K. It’s an opportunity to embrace the climb and the quiet, disciplined, day-to-day grind he seems to love almost as much as a match itself.
“It’s going to be going from not playing to playing [in Chicago] and then not being the potential No. 1. So it probably will be a little bit difficult. But I’ve done it before, right? I think going through the same type of routines that I was going through and making sure that I’m staying locked in and believing that I can do it,” he says.
It’s similar at the national team level. Upon his return from London, Slonina flew to Dallas to meet up with U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter and a selection of MLS-based World Cup hopefuls for a dozen days of training. Camp began Tuesday. He’ll be the only one on Berhalter’s list who’s a genuine long shot to be in Qatar. But Slonina’s time on the international periphery may end soon. The 2022 World Cup will be the first in the modern era that the Americans enter with doubts or concerns in net. Neither Zack Steffen, 27, nor Matt Turner, 28, has grabbed ahold of the No. 1 shirt, and their post–World Cup trajectories are uncertain. Sean Johnson, 33, or Ethan Horvath, 27, likely will be keeper No. 3.
Slonina, meanwhile, is the most valuable U-20 goalie in the world, according to Transfermarkt. His inclusion in this week’s camp is partly a function of availability, but also a sign that he’s now part of the senior pool. He’ll be gunning for 2026.
Although fiercely proud of his Polish heritage, Slonina declared his intention to play for the U.S. in a May 20 statement in which he wrote, “My heart is American.” He’d been courted by the Orly, whose starting goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczęsny, is 32. In April, coach Czesław Michniewicz visited Slonina in Chicago in an effort to lure him to Poland.
Rumors, reports and speculation were swirling. Slonina was linked to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, among others, in addition to Chelsea. In mid-May, a few days after Slonina turned 18, Poland invited him into camp ahead of its UEFA Nations League matches. The pressure was mounting, and the distractions were real. Slonina’s brutal errors against FC Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls were among the lowlights of a 0-7-3 stretch that looked like it might sink Chicago’s season before the summer. At the same time, Berhalter was preparing his list of players who’d contest four games in June, which likely were the last chance for a fringe player like Slonina to make a World Cup statement.
“I started to feel like all eyes were just watching me. Every little mistake I felt like was just maximized to the fullest,” he recalls. “So it kind of put a lot of pressure on me. I do meditation every day, but it was at a point where it was just a lot. It was too much to handle with just meditating. It was a lot of pressure.”
Berhalter told Slonina he wouldn’t be invited to the June camp. Poland beckoned. Nevertheless, Slonina committed to the Americans. Berhalter spoke later that same day.
“If you could imagine a 17-year-old being that determined, [but] this is just an honest conversation I had with him,” the manager said. “I said, ‘Listen, I can’t bring you into this camp because of your form. I just can’t do it. We have guys at really high levels and experienced guys that played for us before, and your form hasn’t been good enough. And I can understand if you’re going to go take a look at Poland because you’re disappointed with this.’
“But he said he’s still committed to us, and that’s all you could hear.”
Slonina acknowledges, “Oh, it was tough. … [But] I wanted to show the fans, the coaching staff, that I feel American, and even though I got called in with Poland and didn’t get called into the U.S., my heart and my decision was with the U.S. because I feel that I can get myself back into the squad.”
He wasn’t shamed or angered by Berhalter’s public criticism.
“That only adds motivation to show that I can bounce back from it. As an athlete and as a human, that’s one of the most important traits that you can have—being able to bounce back from failure and using that failure to push you to success,” he says.
The Fire maintained faith in Gaga and chose to weather the storm while risking a lengthy slump and, perhaps, a decline in transfer value. But Brown and coach Ezra Hendrickson also believed their young keeper, despite his inexperience, had what it took to reverse course. Slonina had been an MLS player for less than a year, but he’d been behaving like a pro for a whole lot longer.
“He works really hard, and so we knew that he would be able to work his way out of whatever he was going through. There were some distractions—all the talk about Madrid or Chelsea or a couple other teams wanting to sign him and stuff like that. So I think maybe that was a little bit of a distraction. But he’s mature beyond his years. And so that level of maturity, that level of confidence in himself helped him a lot,” Hendrickson says.
“During that rough time, you really find yourself,” Slonina adds. “I think those moments really shape you and show you the real character that you are. I asked myself, ‘What can I do? I have two choices: continue to play like this or turn things around.’ And I decided to turn things around. I think I just trusted myself. I stuck to my routine.”
Brown compiled videos of a year’s worth of Slonina’s saves, in addition to mistakes made by the very best goalkeepers in the world. He wanted to remind Gaga to embrace the fickle brutality of his position. That’s part of what appeals to Slonina about the role—the high stakes and the pursuit of perfection.
That pursuit is a lifestyle for Slonina, a 6’4″, 194-pound teenager for whom “Sushi Sunday” is a cheat meal. He started the season waking up at 5:40 a.m., then finished it setting his alarm 10 minutes earlier so he could get to Bridgeview by about 6:45 a.m. He starts with a cold shower. Then he meditates, makes his bed and works in his journal—writing the answers to seven questions that’ll help prepare him mentally for the day ahead.
“One of the first ones is, ‘What are you?’ So I’ll answer something like, ‘I’m the greatest goalkeeper to ever live,’ just to get me into that mindset,” he says. “It’s about discipline, focus and making sure that, in tough moments, what drives you? So then I’ll just write about what drives me in tough moments to keep me going. I write about family and giving them the life that they always wanted, and giving myself the life I always wanted, and about younger kids looking up to me and trying to inspire them. So in tough moments I’ll look back to those questions.”
Hendrickson says Gaga is the first player to arrive each day. He’ll stretch or lift, then watch video with Brown before training—usually of his own performances, but sometimes of other teams and players around MLS. There might be something there to adopt or exploit. Slonina helps clean up the locker room, and on road trips, he’ll carry luggage from the bus. Every detail and every extra mile are covered.
“Discipline equals freedom,” Slonina says. “You get your freedom from the discipline that you put in every single day.”
Some Fire staffers have called him an “alien.” Brown says, “He doesn’t come across as a 17-, 18-year-old. He’s a grown-ass man.”
Slonina was ready for the rut and had a framework in place he could use to climb out. He just didn’t realize it until it was happening. Call it an extended breakdown. He was calmer than just about anyone else his age would have been, and he found a way through.
“He did really well to just go back to the basics and focusing on training everyday—being perfect and consistently being the best version of himself on the field,” Brown says.
Slonina had three shutouts in July and yielded just three goals across six games. He finalized his transfer to Chelsea at the end of that month and finished the MLS campaign third in clean sheets with 12. Although Chicago was unable to pull itself back into playoff contention, Gaga’s ability to recapture some of the form that had multiple Champions League contenders circling represented a teenage triumph.
Almost a year to the day that his car died on the way to Soldier Field, Slonina was in the air and headed to London to complete his medical and sign a six-year contract with Chelsea. What he was going to be leaving behind was as much on his mind as where he was going. The unique foundation he built, the one that may lift him to the Premier League and a World Cup, is inextricably linked to Addison, Chicago, the Fire and his family.
His parents arrived from Poland in their early 20s unable to speak English and built a life for themselves, Gaga and his brother, Nicholas. His father, a former runner, works as a mason. His mother, a former basketball player, is a massage therapist. Dedication was engrained at home. And the Fire were his initial footballing inspiration even though he has no recollection of the club’s glory days. They still were the bright light next door. It fell upon the organization to become both a destination and a launch pad. The Fire had to shepherd Slonina through the academy, help him manage growth and expectations and do right by him in the transfer market, all while trying to win back a fan base beleaguered by a long trophy drought, the move to Bridgeview (the Fire returned to Soldier Field in 2020), contentious relations with the old front office and the disastrous 2019 rebrand.
Slonina is acutely aware of that history, dynamic and challenge. He felt some responsibility, even at 17–18, to help reestablish the Fire’s roots and serve as a symbol for Chicago’s soccer potential. He didn’t want to just walk away. So on that flight to London, he wrote a 1,000-plus word thank you note to all of the above, which he then read in a poignant, five-minute video shared by the club. No typical player has to do that. But Gaga felt compelled.
“His mentality is first-class. He wants to be perfect in everything he does,” Brown says. “He sets such a good example by how he’s a pro and how he goes about doing things and how humble he is.”
Slonina read his letter in one take and navigated those moments where he felt like he started to falter. But he made it through, and it turned out great.
“It was tough writing it, but it was even tougher saying it on video,” he says. “But I wanted to put effort into it. It wasn’t something that was just flowing out, because I wanted to make sure I included all the most important people in my life, to tell them how thankful I was for all the sacrifices and believing in me and putting in the work.”
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