When starting lineups were announced an hour prior to Chicago Fire FC’s Wednesday night meeting with New York City FC, it was revealed that 17-year-old Homegrown product Gabriel Slonina was to become the youngest player in Major League Soccer history to start a match at the goalkeeper position.
Slonina - affectionately known as Gaga - was thrust into action in the absence of regular starter Bobby Shuttleworth, who was sidelined with a knee injury. The Addison, Illinois native showed poise beyond his years over the first official 90 minutes of his pro career, collecting four saves and earning a clean sheet in what became a 0-0 draw at Soldier Field.
"I'm super, super thankful for the tie first and foremost," Slonina told media after the match. "(I'm) super emotional, 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. Every point is important in the season, and I'm super grateful and thankful for the team and just feeling great right now.”
"We are very, very happy with Gaga's performance," head coach Raphael Wicky added. "The team tried to protect and help Gaga and support and Gaga did a really great job in having a zero for his first game in his career, in his professional career is obviously amazing. I am happy with the defensive performance, even there are always things we can do better, but I am happy with the performance.
At 17 years and 81 days old as of matchday, the Chicago Fire FC Academy product was more than a year younger than former Toronto FC goalkeeper David Monsalve was (18 years, 221 days) when he earned the youngest-ever distinction in July of 2007 - coincidentally in a match played against the Fire. Slonina is now additionally the youngest goalkeeper in league history to record a shutout, a record for which he was quick to share credit with his teammates.
"Those guys, man, they're awesome," he said. "They keep me so confident, At the beginning of the game, before we went out on the field, they told me that they're super confident in me to play my game. I'm so confident in the backline and the chemistry we have together, and I think they're great teammates and great people, overall.”
"Everyone's proud of him," defender/midfielder and fellow Homegrown product Mauricio Pineda said of Slonina's performance. "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. 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.”
The early start to his career in MLS puts Slonina among some elite company. Also appearing on the list of youngest-ever goalkeeper starters in league history are familiar names like former U.S. Men’s National Teamer Tim Howard (19 years, 165 days), D.C. United stalwart Bill Hamid (19 years, 161 days), and up-and-coming Real Salt Lake net-minder David Ochoa (19 years, 297 days).
“I knew at training before that I was going to be starting this game and, you know, Rapha (Wicky), and the entire coaching staff was super confident, super positive towards my start," he said. "They believed in me and gave me the confidence I needed for this game.”
That Slonina’s debut came against long-time Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson (2010-16), a player he grew up watching in Chicago, made the occasion more special.
"That was so awesome," he said. "I was looking forward to that at the beginning of the game. He probably doesn't see much of it but for me like that's huge. Him being here and with the national team, it's just awesome to even play against a goalkeeper like that because I think he has so much talent and I just think he's an awesome goalkeeper.”
Slonina originally signed with the Club on March 8, 2019, at the time becoming the youngest Homegrown Player signing in MLS history. He also became the second-youngest player signing in MLS history overall behind only Freddy Adu.
Following the match, he wrapped up his first-ever postgame press conference with a message to the next generation of young players coming up in Chicago: