“It was a no-brainer for me to want to join that team, such a massive club with so much history and the things they have done in the past years have truly been amazing. So it’s an incredible honor to be joining the club,” Slonina told reporters in a media availability on Friday, adding that US men’s national team star Christian Pulisic welcomed him to CFC in a recent phone conversation and stands ready to help him settle in.
“It was a no-brainer to join Chelsea because of the development I’ll be able to get there.”
It is very much both a storybook tale for a strikingly mature 18-year-old phenom who’s already been a regular starter for Chicago Fire FC for a year, and just one more step – however head-turning – along a long road with many miles to go
“He is incredibly hard-working. He’s here every morning at 7 am, he’s working out here in our performance center and so his mindset is very special,” said Fire sporting director Georg Heitz after the club-record transfer. “As any young player, he will have to learn what it means to deal with setbacks, because in every career, you experience setbacks, that’s absolutely clear. But I’m highly confident he will also overcome any setback in his career and his potential is huge.”
Those who’ve seen the Addison, Illinois native up close marvel at his composure and discipline, and laser focus on climbing towards just the type of opportunities this transfer presents.
“Internally, everybody talks about his work ethic, his attitude, his willingness to speak about trying to push himself to get better,” Tony Meola, a US goalkeeping legend whose work as a commentator on Fire broadcasts gave him a front-row seat on Slonina’s rise, told MLSsoccer.com this week.
“I mean, this is a kid that’s been determined from day one to do exactly what he’s doing right now, and that’s to try and find himself a club, a big club that he can push himself to. He’s not afraid of it. And none of this is surprising to me.”
Signing a homegrown deal at age 14, earning Chicago’s No. 1 job at 17: As impressive as Gaga has been so far, the next steps on his journey look murkier. Starting with the fact that the Blues, in addition to being a global superclub, are an organization with a fairly checkered history in regards to young players.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “Chelsea’s loan army,” shorthand for the legions of prospects who sign for the wealthy London club but rarely or never play for their first team. Like US international center back Matt Miazga, the New York Red Bulls product who just returned stateside to join FC Cincinnati this week after five loan stints in five different countries and just two first-team appearances in six years for Chelsea.
“You have to understand that when you’re young, and you’re signing for Chelsea, you’re not really signing for Chelsea,” USMNT ‘keeper turned television analyst Kasey Keller told MLSsoccer.com. “You have to accept that going in. And if you think you’re actually signing for Chelsea, then you’re going to be in for a rude awakening. And that’s the tricky part.”
Having already logged ample MLS minutes, extended time in CFC’s reserves or youth ranks might seem like a sideways or backwards step. Both Keller and Meola expect Chelsea to loan Slonina out to a middle-tier club elsewhere in England or Europe to gain experience instead. Yet Slonina himself insists that the only loan stint he’s thinking about is his current one, finishing out the campaign with the Fire.
“A lot can change but obviously right now I’m back on loan with the Chicago Fire and so my focus is bringing us to the playoffs and lifting that MLS Cup at the end of the year,” he said, maintaining that Chelsea’s staff has gave him no indication yet of planned assignments elsewhere.
“Hopefully I’m going to be joining them January 1st, so it’s going to be a journey from here until then. I think the most important thing is just finishing the year with the Chicago Fire strong and hopefully bringing the Cup back to this beautiful city.”
Slonina’s coaches note his self-awareness, his ability to soak up information and quickly put it to use, and hints of those traits were evident in his remarks on Friday.
“They work with the most, like, elite players in the world,” he said of Blues boss Thomas Tuchel and his staff. “If I can join that and learn from every single person there, use everyone as a teacher, I think that it’s only going to make me better as a person and as a footballer.
“It’s going to be amazing working with every single one of those guys, but working with [Chelsea No. 1] Édouard Mendy, it’s going to be unreal just to see how he goes about in training and how he handles the ball and what he’s doing before the play gets to him… analyzing him before he works, it’s going to be incredible.”
Premier League microscope
The challenges ahead, in a goalkeeper group led by World Cup-bound Senegal’s starter and Spain international Kepa Arrizabalaga, are multilayered. Keller spent the lion’s share of his impressive European career with Millwall, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, and points to the particularly harsh scrutiny of goalkeepers in traditional British footballing culture.
“You will regularly get punished more often from your mistakes, the higher the level is,” said the Seattle Sounders FC alum. “I think in England you are judged more on your mistakes than you are on your saves. And that’s a different environment for a lot of American guys. … It’ll be interesting to see how that works and it’s why sometimes getting on loan to different countries where they aren’t as heavily critical of mistakes in goalkeeping might help.”
While Keller notes that the Premier League has grown increasingly cosmopolitan in its sensibilities about the position since his time there, he urges young goalkeepers like Slonina to recognize “the risk/reward factor” and play within themselves in such environments.
“The old English style was, look, if he scores that great goal, nobody’s ever going to think twice about your performance,” Keller said. “But if you gamble to make that great save, then get beat somehow when you probably shouldn’t have, now you’re going to get judged very heavily. And how do you weigh that out?
“All you have to do is listen to the commentary and understand that there’s an expectation for a goalkeeper in England to be able to do things that are different.”
Promisingly for Slonina, mentality has been one of his strengths to date, along with his tall, rangy frame, reflexes and athleticism. Chicago head coach Ezra Hendrickson praised his resilience in overcoming a couple of costly howlers earlier this year, and tuning out the potential distractions around being pursued by the likes of Real Madrid.
“The thing with this position is, he’s a young player, and they go through ups and downs. When a goalkeeper makes a mistake, it’s usually a direct cause of a goal,” said Hendrickson. “So a couple of those mistakes that he made led directly to goals. And it just was unfortunate for him that it came in consecutive games. But we never lost faith in him. We never lose confidence. And then the second fold is just him – not a player, not a person, he’s very confident. He works really hard. And so we knew that he would be able to work his way out of whatever he was going through.”
Distribution and building possession sequences out of the back have also become a central skill for many ‘keepers in Europe, an area in which the most fleeting errors can be swiftly and viciously punished – as another USMNT goalkeeper, Zack Steffen, learned to his chagrin with Manchester City in last season’s FA Cup semifinal.
That figures to be an area of particular focus for Slonina in the coming months.
“It’s happening sometimes in your six-yard box, right? You’re starting things from 110 yards away from the [opponents’] goal. That part of it has gotten better for Gaga, and it will continue to be better,” said Meola. “I think it’s part of his game that he knows that he will need to improve and become solid. Because those are mistakes that, when you make them, you pay the ultimate price.”
World Cup hopes
Slonina already earned a call-up to join the USMNT during their successful 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, although he has yet to earn a cap, and it’s understandable if he’s still got an eye on a ticket to Qatar this fall. His elders suggest that he focus on the long-term, though, perhaps most realistically targeting the 2026 cycle that’s co-hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico.
“The objective of playing in a World Cup or being named to a World Cup squad should never be in the thought process of your club career. Your club career will dictate if you make it into a World Cup game. So go play,” advised Keller. “Go play week in and week out, and play well wherever you can possibly play at the highest level, and then see if you’re good enough from there.
“If you’re playing week in and week out, you’re playing well and you’re doing good things, the national team will notice. And if they don’t, you can’t do any more than that.”
Meola expects the questions surrounding Steffen (now at Middlesborough) and Matt Turner’s (now at Arsenal) club playing time to determine Slonina’s fate this fall. If those first two aren’t playing regularly, then he believes Gregg Berhalter will have to bring a more seasoned No. 3 likes NYCFC captain Sean Johnson.
“If the other two guys are not starting, I don’t know how you can possibly take a young goalkeeper with no national team experience to the World Cup,” he said. “Gaga’s position almost in a lot of ways doesn’t depend on what he does as much as it depends on what the other guys are doing.”
That’s just one example of the complex landscapes Slonina will have to navigate in the days to come. Those who know him see special characteristics that will help him along the way – even down to his reading and writing habits.
That includes Chicago’s goalkeeper coach Adin Brown, who has worked with Slonina for the past two and a half years and logged experience on both sides of the Atlantic during his own playing days.
“He’s the most professional 18-year-old I’ve ever come across in my life,” said Brown, who played in nearly 100 MLS regular season and playoff games. “He’s the first player at the training facility, usually the last one to leave, he’s always doing extra. He’s always wanting to watch extra films. He’s always wanting to do extra on the field and he’s always wanting to find anything that can elevate his game off the field, whether it’s journaling, which he’s done – any little thing that can give an edge, he’s constantly looking for that.
“Everything he’s going to do over there is going to be under a microscope,” Brown added. “If anybody can make that jump, I do feel like Gaga’s a kid that can. Because number one, his mentality. He’s got one of the toughest mentalities, strongest mentalities I’ve come across in this game. He’s not afraid to work, he’s not afraid to better himself, he’s not afraid to listen to people and take on board what they’re saying. If it’s going to make him improve, he’s going to definitely listen and try and incorporate those things to his game.”