By James Rhys.
Gabriel ‘Gaga’ Slonina has achieved more things in the last six months than most could even begin to dream of.
On August 4, 2021, aged just 17 years and 81 days, the Illinois native made his professional debut for the Chicago Fire, deputising for an injured Bobby Shuttleworth and becoming the league’s youngest-ever starting goalkeeper.
Since then, he has rapidly become one of the hottest prospects in world soccer, and his form between the sticks in the second half of last season earned him a United States call-up as well as adoring glances from top European clubs.
— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) August 4, 2021
Having tasted such significant success so early in his career, and with several English and European clubs reportedly fighting for his signature during the off-season, there’s always a risk that the rapid rise could go to a young player’s head.
But any concerns were quickly dispensed when Slonina spoke to the media from the club’s training camp in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday.
“I still have a lot to prove,” he said. “I don’t like to think of myself as the number one starter now. I still have to give my all in training every single day and put on performances and training as well as possible to continue to prove that I can have that No. 1 spot.
“The level of training and the mindset I go into every training session will be the same as it was last season because, again, it’s that constant wanting to improve and everything.
“Going into this season will be the same as it was last season, I’m going to continue to give my all every single day and continue to work my hardest.”
He may not like to think of himself as the number one starter, but the club’s coaching staff are clearly confident in his ability to cement his place between the poles, rewarding the homegrown talent with a new squad number, the iconic No.1, earlier this week.
— GAGA (@GabrielSlonina) February 13, 2022
“Yeah, I mean, I love my No. 32. I love the No. 1. Again, it’s about going to the first game proving that I can wear that No. 1 because, for me, it’s a big deal.
“It’s a big honour to wear the No. 1 for Chicago Fire. It’s about going out and proving that I deserve it and now just putting on the performances and helping the team be as successful as possible for the season because I really think we can accomplish some big things this year.”
Listening to Slonina speak, it’s incredibly easy to forget that he is still just 17-years-old.
At 6ft 4in and 194lbs, it’s abundantly clear he has matured physically but he also possesses a mentality and maturity that belies his age.
He is humble, professional and possesses a prodigious work ethic, repeatedly highlighting the need to keep working, to eat right, to look after his body, to keep learning from coach and father figure, Adin Brown.
But don’t be fooled. Slonina is confident, competitive, ambitious, and has set his sights on a successful second season with the new-look Chicago Fire.
“I’m feeling great about the season. I love the energy that the coaching staff and the guys are bringing,” he adds.
“I think the right attitude and mentality at training every single day is there. I’m super excited about the guys we brought in and the coaching staff.
“I think that this season is going to be very, very successful and I think that we are going to achieve some big things this year.
“I’m going to continue to put in the work every single day. But at the end of the year, I want to win the MLS Cup and I want to do big things with this club this year.
“I want to make sure we are giving our all on and off the field because ultimately that’s what’s going to push us to be the most successful this year.”