Our friends at SB Nation’s Chicago Fire blog, Hot Time In Old Town have graciously offered to answer a few questions for us about Chelsea’s newest goalkeeper signing, the 18-year-old Gabriel Slonina, the young man they just call “Gaga”.
So who is this ambitious player, who’s setting the record sheets on fire and keeping the Fire’s sheets clean in the process? What’s his story, his strengths, his weaknesses, and what might the future hold for him and the Blues?
WAGNH: Slonina certainly comes across as a confident, ambitious, and obviously talented young player, but how did it even come about that a teenager would be the starting goalkeeper for the Fire? This rarely happens in any top flight.
HTIOT: Slonina signed with the club in 2019, and has been training with the first team since he was 14 years old. He entered the 2021 MLS season as the Fire’s #3 goalkeeper, but a season-ending injury to the starter, Kenneth Kronholm, meant he would sit on the bench for most of the year. MLS’ lack of relegation played into Slonina’s hands because when the Fire were eliminated from playoff contention in the fall, the 17-year-old was named the starter for the rest of the year. The idea was that the final stretch could be used to build towards the next season. In that span, he truly excelled, and he notched 4 clean sheets from 11 matches. In 2022, he has been locked in as the #1 and has been one of the best goalies in MLS this season at just 18; he has 10 clean sheets in 23 matches as the Fire make a late playoff push.
WAGNH: He’s been “Gabriel” thus far in English media, but mostly “Gaga” on the other side of the Pond. Is the nickname that well established and commonly used? And are there any available crossover marketing opportunities with Lady Gaga?
HTIOT: The man himself would tell you that both versions of his name are fine, but for the club and the fans here in the U.S., he’s pretty much always been Gaga. Similar to how he is a unique breed of goalkeeper, having that unique nickname and brand just seems to fit. It is clear that when Lady Gaga’s tour visits Chicago later this month, there is an opportunity for some collaboration!
WAGNH: Slonina fits the Chelsea mold of tall, strong, dominant goalkeepers already, but what are his greatest strengths at the moment?
HTIOT: Slonina has all the physical attributes you want out of a goalkeeper, standing at 6’4” and he commands his box very well. He is an excellent shot stopper and is known to make some truly exceptional saves which are perfect for the highlight reel. His reactions are excellent, and his instincts are essentially unmatched among MLS goalkeepers. Gaga is also one of the hardest working players you will ever see, and he has an excellent mentality and personality that should make him a fan favorite in West London.
WAGNH: Conversely, being so young still, he surely has a ton of room left to develop. What are his current weaknesses and where do you see him improving as he grows older and gets exposed to non-MLS football?
HTIOT: The good news is that while Gaga still has a lot of work to do to reach his full potential, the areas in which he needs to improve are ones that usually get better with time. The biggest area is playing out of the back; he is competent with his feet, but his distribution currently will not be good enough at a higher level than MLS. His positioning and decision-making could also be better, but that will come with time and experience.
WAGNH: Having declared for the USMNT, he’s set to follow in the footsteps of several great US goalkeepers in the past couple decades who had found success in the Premier League. Who among them does Slonina best resemble, if any, and who would be a good comparison to him from among all the legends of the position anywhere the world over?
HTIOT: The legendary U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola has often compared Slonina to a young Gigi Buffon, and that comparison, while certainly very high praise, matches in terms of play style. Amongst American goalies in the Premiership, he is probably most similar to Tim Howard because he manages to make seemingly impossible saves at times, and has elite reflexes. Unlike previous American keepers in England like Howard, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, Brad Guzan, and Zack Steffen, who arrived close to their primes, Gaga is still young enough that he could be molded into the goalkeeper that Chelsea want and he is far from the finished product.
WAGNH: His transfer to Chelsea seems to have been taken as a point of pride by the Chicago Fire organization, not least for the millions received in return, but how do the fans feel about it all?
HTIOT: Chicago is the third biggest city in the U.S., but in almost all aspects, the Fire have been dramatically underperformed for the last decade. The fact that the academy has produced such an elite prospect, now bound for one of the biggest clubs in the world, is naturally a great accomplishment for the organization, which has put a big emphasis on young players. When Fire fans saw such a player coming through, they knew it was an inevitability that he would one day leave, and they feel proud of the local boy making his way to a team like Chelsea. The Fire also are in a truly unique situation, because aside from Gaga, there is another elite goalkeeping talent in the pipeline, Chris Brady; Slonina’s replacement is already at the club, and he is also someone who could also leave for an eight-figure fee a few years down the line.
WAGNH: Slonina’s set to finish out the season with the Fire, then join Chelsea in January for good. How do you see him getting on in London in those first few months, and how do you see his career developing beyond that? He seems to have his sights set on becoming the best in the world, do you think he can get there at Chelsea?
HTIOT: The Fire’s sporting director, Georg Heitz, did not rule out bringing Slonina back to Chicago for a second loan in January, but those discussions have not yet been had. The plan seems to be for him to spend his first few years as a Chelsea player developing, whether that be as a backup or on loan elsewhere. The hope would be that he can push for the starting job at Chelsea within a couple of years and for the national team by the 2026 World Cup, but that also depends on Édouard Mendy and the goalkeeping situation at the club. Slonina has said on numerous occasions that he has ambitions of being the best goalkeeper on the planet, and he absolutely has the talent to do it.
Thanks again to Alex, and good luck to Gaga and the Fire the rest of this season and, hopefully, the MLS playoffs as well.
And if you’re still here, be sure to watch Gaga’s farewell letter to the Fire. It’s excellent.