At 17 years old, Gabriel Slonina plays & acts above his age for Chicago Fire FC

Chicago Fire FC

CHICAGO – In front of 31,308 fans at Soldier Field on October 23rd, Chicago Fire FC had the chance to leave supporters with one last impression before the club finished the season in a few weeks.

Some of those spectators were seeing the club for the first time while others have been there since April, but all of them were able to see someone who’ll be a part of the team’s future in the net that night.

Against Real Salt Lake, goalkeeper and Addison native Gabriel Slonina registered five saves against a club fighting for a playoff spot, getting a clean sheet in a 1-0 victory in the home finale. For his efforts, he was named “Man of the Match” as the Fire scored one of their most memorable wins of a playoff-less 2021 season.

Some might consider Slonina’s emergence the story of the year for the club, as the 17-year old became the youngest goalkeeper to play in a match in the history of Major League Soccer. It’s certainly a dream come true for the native of the Chicago area, who watched the Fire as a kid in hopes of one day taking the field for them.

He’d end up doing that less than three months after he turned 17, yet he was ready when his moment came on August 4th, when he made his debut in a scoreless draw against New York City FC at Soldier Field.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” said Slonina of his first season.

Yet the goalkeeper had kept the mindset of a veteran the whole time, talking about the importance of being ready on a game-to-game basis. In an interview this week, Slonina discussed the importance of taking care of his body through nutrition and training along with preparing his mind with meditation.

He was the backup to veteran Bobby Shuttleworth a majority of the season, and the goalkeeper took the time to see how to be a professional so he might be ready when his time arrived.

“I’ve learned a lot along the way. I wasn’t starting and playing many games in the beginning of the year, so I think it was how can I use that to my advantage and make sure I’m prepared for my moment,” said Slonina. “I’ve learned a lot, gained a lot of experience about what it takes to be a professional and play in the MLS. So I think it’s been really good for me this year, making my debut at such a young age and gaining the confidence and experience from older players and just using everything to make sure that I’m staying ready,

“Keeping my body healthy and making sure that I’m prepared for every single game like a final. Making sure I’m professional and doing the right things.”

Interim manager Frank Klopas will vouch for that after seeing him during training sessions and in matches over the past few months.

“He’s 17 but he’s mature beyond his years, I would say. That’s been really impressive to me,” said Klopas of Slonina. “I have no doubt about his quality. That’s never been a doubt. You see him in training every day, and he’d make saves, and you’d have to look again because the things that he does, sometimes you kind of shake your head but then he does the stuff almost every day.

“But just his maturity level, the way he carries himself, his work ethic, he’s got a good head on his shoulders and a good support system. The young man, the future is so bright for him but he has to understand that he has to continue and work on stuff like that.”

Slonina has a good base to build off, since his start in the finale against Columbus on Sunday will be his 11th of the season. He’s had four clean sheets in that time with a 3-4-3 record in that time with 14 goals allowed, aiding the Fire’s 11 points they’ve earned in their last seven games.

“The one thing that stands out is that he’s a professional. He’s always ready. He comes in early. He leaves last,” said defender Mauricio Pineda of Slonina. “Even when he wasn’t seeing a minute on the field, he was always the first one here. Always prepared for when his name was called. So I think that showed exactly what he does in his preparation.

“And he’s brave. When he steps on the field, he was courageous and he showed what he was about. So I think that’s excellent to see from someone that’s 17 years old. So, yeah, he’s been outstanding.”

Playing and acting above his age is a goal for Slonina as he likely takes over the top goalkeeper spot in 2022 for a Fire club that will feature turnover in the offseason along with a new full-time manager. The 17-year old is hoping to be one of those leading the way as the club continues to build a new identity in this new era under owner Joe Masueto.

“I don’t like to look at the age as a limiting factor of what I can be for this club. I want to be a leader, I want to be a person on the field that drives the team to push for success and making sure that keeping guys in check, making sure that guys are doing the right things for their body, for their mind,” said Slonina. “I don’t want to be seen as a 17-year old, I want to be seen as a leader, as a captain for the team. I want to make sure that when people see me on the field they know that I’m a leader on there.

“I’m speaking loudly to my defenders, making sure that we’re staying organized in the back. That’s a big part of me, I see the whole field, and have to make sure that I ‘m communicating a lot to my teammates. For sure, being one of those players that motivates us and pushes us through hard times is definitely the type of character that I want to portray on and off the field.”

Playing and acting above his 17 years is certainly a great place to start for a goalkeeper who is building a professional soccer career in his hometown.

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