For the Chicago Fire, 2021 marked a fourth straight season without qualifying for the playoffs. After finishing 22nd overall in 2020 with an average of 1.00 points claimed per game, the Fire where remarkably consistent with regards to being terrible in 2021, finishing 22nd overall with an average of 1.00 points per game.
Manager Raphaël Wicky was fired at the end of September, and the club quickly became the first to announce its offseason departures with nine players being shown the door, including Designated Player Robert Berić, captain Francisco Calvo and Spanish midfielder Álvaro Medrán.
The Fire are going to be a completely different team in 2022, but one position that’s settled for now — and potentially decades into the future — is goalkeeper, where 17-year-old phenom Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina claimed the starting spot in September over veteran shot-stopper Bobby Shuttleworth and never looked back.
Slonina made 11 starts for Chicago, becoming the youngest starting keeper in MLS history in the process and keeping four clean sheets, including a shutout of Real Salt Lake back on Oct. 23 that saw him named to the MLS Team of the Week.
The kid is just different. pic.twitter.com/fnZ1xWCwuX— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) October 25, 2021
He had multiple eight-save games, saved a penalty and, perhaps most impressively, actually got Chicago mainstream media to notice the Fire. The teenager was recently featured in an NBC Chicago segment, where he took a moment to discuss his plan to become bigger than Lady Gaga.
“I want Gaga to be like the nickname that goes around and when people hear ‘Gaga’ they think about this unstoppable monster in goal instead of Lady Gaga,” Slonina said.
His reality isn’t quite there yet — Slonina is still taking high school classes online, living with his parents, doing the dishes and taking the trash out — but teammates are quick to praise Slonina's maturity, focus and commitment to professionalism despite his tender age.
Shuttleworth called him a “sponge” and said, “I think he, as a 17-year-old kid, it’s very impressive to see how much farther along he is and how mature he is at such an early age. It’s quite impressive.”
Since making his debut in August, Gabriel Solina has made 3.36 saves from shots inside the box per 90 minutes - more than any other goalkeeper with 270+ MLS minutes in that time.The 17-year-old is being kept very busy. https://t.co/LSHeoyZZYE
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 8, 2021
Fire interim manager Frank Klopas has also praised the keeper, saying, “He’s 17 but he’s mature beyond his years, I would say. That’s been really impressive to me. I have no doubt about his quality. That’s never been a doubt. You see him in training every day, and he’d make saves, and you’d have to look again because the things that he does, sometimes you kind of shake your head but then he does the stuff almost every day.”
At 6-4 and 194 pounds, the native of Addison, Illinois, has all the physical tools to be elite, and he recently told ESPN’s Sebastian Salazar that he’s striving “to be the greatest goalkeeper in the world.”
“I always believed in myself from the start,” Slonina said. “It was good the time came now and I’m using it to my advantage and getting every opportunity I can and squeezing the most out of it. I was always preparing for this moment and giving my all every day in training, in everyday life outside of training, making sure I’m doing the right things.”
Exclusive sit down w/ Gabriel Slonina 6’4” 195 lbs and 4 Shutouts in only 10 games played.Great interview. @ChicagoFire @GabrielSlonina @SebiSalazarFUT #FutbolAmericas #ESPNPlus @espnplus #CFFC pic.twitter.com/1NwcpdaMZa
— herculez gomez (@herculezg) November 3, 2021
Slonina is eligible to represent Poland through his parents, but he’s also just been given a call-up to the United States U-20 national team for the 2021 Revelations Cup. The other keeper on the roster is Alexander Borto, who plays for Fulham’s U-23s.
“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,” he told 90min. “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.”
The U-20s play Brazil’s U-20s on Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET with the match broadcast on TUDN.