Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina has been thought of as a goalkeeper of the future for the United States. Making his MLS debut at just 16 years old last year, Slonina has been a rising star between the net.
But the future could be now for Slonina on the international scene, and the USMNT faced a battle to keep one of its brightest young stars.
There was also a battle for Slonina’s signature at the club level, one that was eventually won by Premier League giants Chelsea. Real Madrid appeared positioned to complete the signing, but Chelsea outlasted the La Liga side.
Still just 18 years old, Slonina’s star appears bright despite his young age, and he now has a shiny new contract to prove it.
Who is Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina?
Born in Addison Illinois to Polish immigrant parents, the 18-year-old goalkeeper joined the Chicago Fire academy in 2016 and spent three seasons there before signing a Homegrown contract in 2019.
At just 14 years old, Slonina became the youngest-ever Homegrown signing in MLS history, the second-youngest signing in MLS history, and the 13th Homegrown player in Chicago Fire history. He made his MLS debut in August 2021, starting and playing the full 90 minutes in a 0-0 draw with eventual champions NYCFC, making him the youngest goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in MLS history.
After his debut, Slonina sat for seven more league games before earning the starting job on September 19, starting the final 11 matches of last season and the first seven games of this season.
Slonina was first nicknamed “Gaga” as a six-year-old and says it stuck so well that he ended up putting it on his jersey as a young player.
Gaga Slonina signs for Chelsea
There have been rumblings of a European move for Slonina for months, ever since he debuted for the Fire and performed well. Chelsea and Real Madrid have been the two teams actively vying for Slonina’s signature all summer.
The transfer saga has finally come to a conclusion as Chelsea announced the signing of Slonina on August 2. The Blues confirmed that Slonina will return to the Chicago Fire on loan before moving to London at the end of the MLS season.
The transfer dated all the way back to May 2 when Fabrizio Romano reported the young goalkeeper was heavily sought after by Chelsea, but the club’s transfer ban in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put a stop to things, at least for the time being. Furthering that report was Goal.com’s Chelsea correspondent Nizaar Kinsella later that month.
Then, Romano reported on May 30 that Slonina was being followed by Spanish giants Real Madrid. Los Blancos have Thibaut Courtois firmly entrenched in the starting role, with Ukrainian 23-year-old Andriy Lunin as his backup.
Southampton and Wolves also have been linked to Slonina recently, and Italian publication Tuttosport (via Football-Italia) linked Slonina with Juventus, but it never seemed to reach beyond Chelsea and Real Madrid.
On June 2, Slonina’s agent stated through Romano that the young goalkeeper has Real Madrid first on his list, saying they “hope Chicago can find an agreement with Real Madrid to realize Gabriel’s dream of playing for Real.” It’s clear where Slonina wants to play next.
While Slonina may have preferred a move to Real Madrid, Chelsea appeared closest to a EUR10 million move after another Fabrizio Romano update on June 12. The deal appeared even closer when Romano furthered his reporting a month later with the latest update stating Chelsea have a verbal agreement with the Chicago Fire and will be submitting an official bid to finalize a deal.
Slonina turns down Poland call-up, chooses USMNT
While Slonina is American-born, his parents each hail from Poland, giving him eligibility for the eastern European nation.
On April 19, the Polish national team posted a photo on Facebook of Slonina meeting Poland head coach Czeslaw Michniewicz and receiving a commemorative jersey in what appeared to be a clear recruiting pitch by the Polish boss.
The photo was taken at Soldier Field after Chicago played its 2022 U.S. Open Cup opener against Union Omaha, where the Fire was upset in a penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw. Slonina did not play in the match as the Fire rotated its squad for the Cup match.
Sure enough, the following day Tom Bogert of MLS.com reported that Poland is planning on calling Slonina up to the senior national team.
Ranked 26th in the world by FIFA rankings, Poland has already secured passage to the 2022 World Cup and has UEFA Nations League matches against Wales, Belgium, and the Netherlands scheduled for June.
While there’s no official word yet whether Slonina will accept the call-up, transfer guru Fabrizio Romano echoed Bogert’s report and stated that Slonina’s “priority is to stay with the USMNT.”
Ultimately, in late May, Slonina announced his decision to stay true to the United States, turning down Poland.
“My heart is American,” Slonina said in an official statement. “This country has given me and my family all the opportunities I could ask for. It’s pushed me and supported me through good and bad. I understand the privilege of wearing the badge, and the only time I’ll put my head down is to kiss it. America is home and that’s who I’m going to represent.”
Despite the eventual decision, it’s clear his Polish heritage is important to the young goalkeeper and his family.
“For my mom and my dad, it’s been their number one goal in life to always look at us first instead of them,” Slonina’s brother Nicholas said to the Chicago Fire official website in 2019, before calling time on his professional career. “So in mine and my brother’s mind, we have to give back to them. They started brand new lives here and they did it all for us. So I think making it here with my brother is their American dream.”
And Michniewicz is recruiting hard. “I handed him a national team jersey with the number one and an eagle,” said the Poland head coach, as quoted by Polish publication WProst Sport. “He was very proud and touched by our conversation. He is very interested in playing for our squad. We know the United States is tempting him too. I think that we are, in fact, headed in the right direction for him to represent us.”
Slonina’s history with the USMNT
While Slonina could definitely consider playing for Poland, he has history with the U.S. national team.
Slonina has made appearances for the U-15, U-16, and U-17 U.S. youth national teams. He faced seven shots on goal in a UEFA Development Tournament match against Spain’s U-17 team that the U.S. lost 2-1 in February, 2020.
The youngster was called up to the senior squad for January camp this past winter, but was cut by head coach Gregg Berhalter when the time came to slim the roster for World Cup qualifying matches against El Salvador, Canada, and Honduras.
Slonina has shirked questions about his future at both the club and international level in the past.
“I think right now, the main focus is about this preseason and finishing preseason strong,” Slonina told the Chicago Sun Times in February. “I’m not the type of player to look too much into the future. I want to be here, present now because obviously that’s what’s most important.
“But we never know what the future holds, so I think I’m just going to continue to give my all every single day in training, making sure that I’m helping guys on and off the field to have the most successful season that we can for this club.”
Rules about players switching national teams
In 2021, FIFA changed the eligibility rules to adjust what officially cap-ties a player to his national team.
Before the rule change, any single competitive cap locked a player in for a national team. However, under the new rules, players who have three or fewer caps prior to the age of 21 — provided none of those caps were at either a World Cup or major continental tournament finals — can switch national teams after a three-year waiting period from their prior competitive appearance.
Thus, should Slonina accept a call-up to Poland this summer and appear in Nations League matches, he could still switch back to the United States as long as he remains under three caps. Still, it would require Slonina to sit for three years after his appearances for Poland before then appearing for the United States.
Should Slonina make more than four competitive appearances, or feature in a World Cup or Euro tournament for Poland, he would be cap-tied and the U.S. would miss out.
Other U.S. born players to play for other countries
The most famous U.S.-born player to spurn the United States for another nation is Giuseppe Rossi, a New Jersey-born attacking midfielder who earned 30 caps for the Italian national team.
There are others aside from Rossi, however.
Current LA Galaxy defender Julian Araujo was born in Lompoc, California and made appearances at multiple levels for the U.S. youth international setup — even earning a cap for the United States in a friendly in 2020 — before making a “one-time switch” to Mexico, where he has since earned two caps, including one in World Cup qualification.
Ayo Akinola, who was born in Detroit and plays for Toronto FC, did the same as Araujo. Akinola played for the U.S. youth setup and earned a senior cap for a friendly in December 2020. He then completed a “one-time switch” to Canada and has since earned two senior caps for Les Rouges.
Multiple U.S. born players have suited up for El Salvador over the years. Steve Purdy, born in Bakersfield, California was capped 15 times by El Salvador between 2011 and 2013. Gerson Mayen of Los Angeles has been capped 47 times by El Salvador, most recently in June of 2021. Arturo Alvarez of Houston, Texas was capped 44 times between 2009 and 2018.
Miguel Ponce, a left-back born in Sacramento, California, was capped 12 times by U.S. rivals Mexico. He played a key role in Mexico’s gold-medal winning Olympic team in 2012 and was a bench option for El Tri in the 2014 World Cup, although he did not appear in a match. Ponce currently plays for Chivas Guadalajara but has not been called into the national team since 2014.
Defender Steven Beitashour, born in San Jose, California and currently playing for the Colorado Rapids, has been capped 10 times by Iran, a country drawn into the same 2022 World Cup group as the United States. Beitashour has not been called in since 2014, however, and is unlikely to be included in the country’s World Cup plans.
Former LA Galaxy and current New England Revolution defender AJ DeLaGarza, born in Maryland, made two appearances for the United States before switching to Guam and earning 14 caps for the tiny Pacific island nation.