There was some concern among the U.S. soccer fanbase this week when Poland included Chicago Fire goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina on a list of national team call-ups for next month’s four UEFA Nations League games.
Slonina, known as ‘Gaga’ to fans, friends and family, isn’t ready for the rigors of a World Cup. He just turned 18 last Sunday. But he is the best American goalkeeping prospect in a generation, at least, and as the son of Polish immigrants to Chicago, he had a heavily-scrutinized international decision to make.
On Friday, he made it. Although he’s “proud of my roots and heritage,” Slonina wrote in a post on Twitter, his “heart is American.” Gaga will play for the U.S.
“I’ve known for a while now the unique privilege I have of being a dual-national,” he wrote. “Although I’ve never thought much about it because I just love everything about my roots and heritage, that’s just me! But, I know that in sports you have to make a decision for who you want to compete for on the international stage.”
Slonina didn’t have to make a decision now. In fact, because he’s under 21, he could have played in three of Poland’s four Nations League games (which was unlikely) before being cap-tied permanently to the Eagles. The clock wasn’t ticking.
But Poland’s invitation may have ratcheted up the pressure, or helped Slonina clarify his thoughts and ambitions. Gregg Berhalter already had informed the goalie that he wouldn’t be included on the roster for the U.S. national team’s June friendlies and Concacaf Nations League games, leaving Slonina only one international option this summer. But he still decided now was the right time to announce his decision (which, incidentally, doesn’t cap-tie him to the U.S.)
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“This country has given me and my family all the opportunities I could ask for,” Slonina wrote. “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.”
Born in the Chicago suburbs, Slonina signed a pro contract with the Fire when was just 14 years old, becoming the second-youngest signing in MLS history (after Freddy Adu). He played for the U.S. junior national sides from U-15 through U-17 and then earned his first U-20 caps last November while still 17. In January, Berhalter invited Slonina to an ad-hoc December camp for MLS players, and then called him up as a reserve for the January-February World Cup qualifiers against El Salvador, Canada and Honduras.
Zack Steffen (Manchester City) and Matt Turner (New England Revolution, transferring to Arsenal this summer) are atop the U.S. depth chart, with the likes of Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest) and Sean Johnson (New York City FC) behind them. Horvath, who will turn 27 in June, is the youngest. Poland is backstopped by Juventus’s Wojciech Szczesny, 32, and also has 24-year-old Fiorentina backup Bartłomiej Drągowski in the fold.
Despite his youth and inexperience, especially for his position, Slonina emerged as the Fire’s starter last August. He’s now his hometown club’s clear No. 1 and has already drawn significant interest from a host of noteworthy European clubs. He started the 2022 MLS season strong with five shutouts in his first seven games, but has now been beaten at least twice in each of Chicago’s past five outings. The last-place Fire visit NYCFC on Sunday.
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