The January collection of exciting new signings is not the only fresh faces on the Chelsea scene in recent weeks.
There is, in addition to the recent transfer window influx, a young American at Cobham who was not here in the first half of the season, and he is a young American who has recently made some news.
Gabriel Slonina signed for Chelsea back in August but straightaway returned on loan to the club where he had been prior to the transfer, and indeed where he had quickly made his name – Chicago Fire. He completed the MLS season there before beginning his career in England in earnest last month.
However after just a few weeks training and one game for our U21s, he was returning back across the Atlantic – but for the best possible reason – to make his debut for the United States national team.
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In starting the match against Serbia in Los Angeles, 18-year-old Slonina became the youngest goalkeeper to play for the USA. Now back at Cobham, he tells us about his moment making history.
‘When I went there I wasn’t fully expecting to play,’ he reveals. ‘You still have to work for your spot and show that you deserve to play, but I thought it was a perfect time for me to show that I can play for the US Men’s National Team. And I did. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience so it was really, really nice.
‘I knew I was playing the day before the game so I had good time to prepare. On the day of the game I felt normal, as if I’ve been doing this my whole life, so that was good. I felt very prepared, very confident heading out to the field. Obviously there was a little bit of pre-game nervousness, which I think is important for a player, it shows that you want to do well, but the preparation I had leading up to it in the weeks before this game gave me the best chance to put on a good performance.
‘We lost 2-1 which is not the best result but I thought I played well [he made six saves]. I could do a little better in certain moments but to make my debut and play the way I did, I’m happy with my performance but it’s a team game so you want to win games.
‘It’s kind of surreal when we have a corner and you hear the USA chants surrounding you,’ he adds. ‘It’s very humbling and an amazing experience to be able to listen to things you see on TV.’
Now he has been blooded at international level, it can only be natural that a player in Slonina’s position must be eyeing up the possibility of being part of an already young United States squad at the next World Cup, to be hosted in his homeland in conjunction with Canada and Mexico.
Confirming it is a big goal of his, he says his aim initially is to ‘stay in the moment’ and find a way of being selected consistently for the squad in the seasons leading up to 2026, learning how the team plays, learning the environment and how to fit into the system.
And in the meantime, there is also Chelsea.
‘It’s gone great so far,’ he smiles. ‘All the goalkeepers, the entire coaching staff and team are top professionals. They want you to improve so being around that environment for the past month has been amazing. I think I’ve made huge strides, improving as a player and in a personal field so hopefully I continue to keep doing that working with this group of guys. It’s honestly been amazing.
‘I think I’ve improved in everything, just being able to see the little things that I didn’t even think about before and working on those, tweaking them to make me quicker, to make me stronger, to make me more powerful.’
Reaching landmark achievements young is not new to Slonina. He was Chicago Fire’s youngest signing when given a professional contract at the age of only 14. He followed that by becoming the MLS’s youngest goalkeeper at the age of 17 years and 81 days in August 2021.
‘I played the rest of the 2021 season so that was 11 games, and then played 32 of the 2022 season,’ he recalls. ‘To be so young and to get those game minutes is almost unheard of so I have to thank the coaching staff there for trusting in a young goalkeeper. I know that’s not easy and there was a lot of hard work that went into it.
‘Experiencing that at such a young age did massively help me to see what it takes to play day in and day out. Now coming out here [to Chelsea] it’s another step in the journey and I just have to keep working to get that opportunity again.’
Before we look at the move to London, let’s go back to the sporting start. Though, as a surname with Polish roots indicates, he has a European background, Slonina does not believe that is the reason he took up football. That’s because his parents were not soccer enthusiasts.
Incidentally, he does prefer the use of his long-time nickname of Gaga (closer in rhyme to saga than dagger) than his full first name Gabriel.
Though not football players, his mother and father were however sports people, a basketball player and a track runner respectively.
‘I think my athletic roots and genes kind of show up but ever since I was three or four years old I just started playing football.
‘I would love to play basketball, tennis, all the sports really. My mom is about 5ft 11 and my dad 6ft, but my mom’s dad was 6ft 7ins so I think I definitely get my height from him (Slonina is 6ft 4). I was always a bigger kid when I was younger so I kind of just gravitated towards the goal and keeping shots out was what gave me the best feeling, so I stuck with it ever since.’
At Chelsea, Slonina trains with the senior group of goalkeepers daily but he joined up with our development squad to play a PL2 match last month, a win over Wolves in which he was not unduly tested but was able to show comfort with the ball at his feet, just one of the many aspects of the goalkeeping craft he has studied in others.
‘I have to give credit to the defence because they did really, really well,’ he praises. ‘Their goal is for me not to have a job to do. It was good to be able to see how we play, building out, distribution lines.
‘Wearing a Chelsea shirt and playing with whatever squad is always going to be an amazing experience and the boys there are lovely. Right away I felt part of the team, part of the brotherhood so it’s really good.
‘I studied the greats like Petr Cech, Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar, David Seaman, all those guys that are icons of the game and always will be. From the modern game, Manuel Neuer was really big for me. I would always watch his highlights and what he could do with the ball. He was so comfortable being like that sweeper-keeper. I watch every top keeper – Edouard Mendy, I would watch his highlights. Kepa, I would watch his highlights. Ederson, how he can build out from the back line. Honestly, I try to take something from every single goalkeeper and try to use what I can to make me better.
‘After I signed in August it’s been an incredible journey and honestly it still doesn’t feel real, coming in and training at the Chelsea facilities. I watched this team growing up and it’s a dream come true.’