Gaga Slonina: why the US teenager is prized by some of Europe's top clubs




Photograph: Mike Dinovo/USA Today Sports
Photograph: Mike Dinovo/USA Today Sports  

America has never had a problem producing quality goalkeepers. Tim Howard, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Brad Guzan all enjoyed long spells in the Premier League and the next name to join that list may have emerged. Indeed, many expect Gabriel 'Gaga' Slonina, the Chicago Fire No 1 who has already started 25 MLS matches at the age of just 18, to be the USA's next great goalkeeper.

A number of Europe's biggest clubs share this view - Chelsea and Real Madrid are reportedly interested in signing Slonina this summer. There has also been a tug-of-war over the teenager's international future - Poland manager Czeslaw Michniewicz visited Slonina, whose parents are Polish, in Chicago in an attempt to persuade the young goalkeeper to commit to the country and even named him in his squad for this month's Uefa Nations League fixtures.

Slonina ultimately refused that call-up, stating that his "heart is American," bringing relief to those who have long envisaged him becoming the US men's national team's first-choice goalkeeper. Chelsea and Real Madrid fans may not have heard of Slonina until his name started to appear in the gossip column, but he is familiar to plenty within American soccer.

At just 14, Slonina became the youngest-ever Homegrown signing in MLS history before making his senior league debut at 16. He played an important role in a goalless draw against eventual MLS Cup winners New York City FC in that debut, making him the youngest goalkeeper to ever keep an MLS clean sheet.

This season, Slonina has played more MLS minutes than any other Chicago Fire player. While he has made one or two mistakes, he started his 2022 campaign with five clean sheets in seven matches. When asked to set his target for the season, Slonina said he wanted to break the league's clean sheet record (17). The 18-year-old has also embraced comparisons to Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer, saying "why can't I be at that level?" He doesn't lack confidence.

Nor does he lack ability. At 6ft 4in, Slonina is physically imposing and he makes good use of it, coming for crosses and spreading himself across as much of the goal as possible. Slonina started 11 MLS matches in 2021 and conceded just 16 goals from an Expected Goals (xG) value of 19.07.

On top of all this, Slonina is more comfortable than most keepers with the ball at his feet. Not only is he competent with his short (97.6% completion rate) and medium-length (95.5% competition rate) passing, he has a sharp eye for picking out teammates further forward - his pass completion rate over 40 yards of 45.9% is one of the highest in MLS among keepers. Slonina, it appears, is the complete package.

The 2022 World Cup may come too early for Slonina, but he has the potential to become the USMNT No 1, particularly with the current goalkeeping group the subject of so much discussion. Zack Steffen and Matt Turner both have their qualities, but they also have their flaws. That Sean Johnson was recently given a chance to impress in a friendly against Uruguay, indicates that Gregg Berhalter isn't totally convinced by the pair. Seattle Sounders veteran Stefan Frei has even been pushed forward as an option.

Berhalter's decision on who should start for the USA at the 2022 World Cup is about more than just picking a goalkeeper. Indeed, it will say a lot about how he wants his team to play. The choice between Steffen and Turner is also an ideological one - the former is more comfortable with the ball at his feet while the latter is a more orthodox shot-stopper. If the USMNT want to play an expansive game, Steffen appears the best option. If, however, they wish to adopt a more conservative approach, Turner is probably the better bet.

There may not be the need to make that choice in the future if Slonina flourishes as predicted. This is why there is already so much expectation heaped on the shoulders of a player who hasn't even made his debut at senior international level.

American soccer has sent several players to big clubs in recent years. Christian Pulisic was an early flag-bearer, certainly after Chelsea spent €64m to sign him from Borussia Dortmund in 2019, with the likes of Weston McKennie (Juventus), Sergino Dest (Barcelona) and Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig) following his lead in joining Champions League clubs. There has never been more footballing traffic across the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, Steffen is a Manchester City player while Turner will soon join Arsenal after playing his final game for the New England Revolution later this month, but neither are expected to be first-choice at their respective clubs next season. Slonina, who by his own admission wants to become "the greatest goalkeeper in the world," can achieve more. His country is counting on it.

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