CHICAGO – It was a surprise to many supporters when they noticed a change at goalkeeper for Chicago Fire FC before their match with New York City FC on Wednesday.
Out was Bobby Shuttleworth with a knee injury, and in was Gabriel Slonina, a homegrown player from Addison who got the spot start in net.
But the goalkeeper and the club knew about it in training that week, as the team was prepared to put the 17-year old into the net to face the third-leading goal-scoring team in Major League Soccer.
“I knew I was getting the first start during training. Bobby was just recovering, he needed a game off and I knew at training before that I was going to be starting this game,” said Slonina. “(Manager) Rapha (Wicky), and the entire coaching staff was super confident, super positive towards my start. They believed in me and gave me the confidence I needed for this game.”
That was especially important, considering that Slonina was about to make some MLS history by just stepping into the goalkeeper’s spot on Wednesday. At 17 years and 81 days, he was the youngest player at that position to start a match in league history, and he made the most of it.
Slonina helped to hold NYCFC off the scoreboard for 90 minutes than stoppage time, seeing 15 total shots, facing four on goal with one save in a scoreless draw. He became the youngest goalkeeper to post a shutout in MLS history in the process.
“Super emotional,” said Slonina of his first game. “A lot of hard work went into this moment but I’m proud of the team for fighting and keeping this a tie and getting a point. Because you know every point is important in the season and yeah I’m super grateful and thankful for the team and just feeling great right now.”
In his post-match news conference, Slonina was complimentary of the defense in front of him, which helped to hold down a club that’s scored 30 goals in the 2021 season. Defender Mauricio Pineda, who is a native of Bolingbrook and also is a homegrown player with the club, returned the compliment.
“I think everyone’s proud of him. He’s been training really well, he’s always preparing and getting ready for every day. And that showed today, when he is behind me on the field I feel like there’s a 30-year-old man behind me,” said Pineda of Slonina. “His voice is heard, he’s always loud, he’s communicating so I don’t feel like there’s a 17-year-old goalkeeper playing behind me when he’s there.
“So that gives off a lot of confidence for himself and for us and as a backline, so really happy for him.”
Despite his youth, Slonina had some veteran wisdom after his first MLS match when asked about advice he’d give to young soccer players as they look to do what he did on Wednesday.
“It’s to just never give up, you know,” said Slonina. “Just keep doing you, keep giving all every single day to be the best person and teammate you can be for each other. And the hard work will pay off because everything pays off in the end. It’s just about patience, positivity, discipline, consistency. So much goes into a good performance and I think it’s just about having huge ambitions and never letting anyone tell you that you can’t do what you want to set out to do.
“Because I was a kid just like them, you know, and I had dreams to play at Soldier Field. I have dreams of becoming the best goalkeeper in the world, and it’s just to never give up and never let anyone tell you what you can do and what you can’t do.”
It certainly worked for him, and he’s got a spot in the MLS record books to prove it.