Gabriel Slonina is an 18-year-old American Goalkeeper who currently plays for the Chicago Fire in MLS. Slonina is a graduate of the Fire’s academy so he has been with the club for quite some time. Slonina made his professional debut in 2021 against New York City. Shortly thereafter he won the starting job in Chicago and played the last 10 games of the 2021 season. Slonina retained his starting spot in 2022 and has started all of Chicago’s games so far. There have certainly been some bumps in the road but the fact that Slonina is turning in decent performances in MLS at such a young age has a lot of people excited about him and has, reportedly, drawn the interest of some of the biggest clubs in the world. Slonina has been capped several times for the United States at youth level but is yet to make a senior appearance for the national team. He was also eligible to represent Poland but he announced his intention to play for the United States earlier this year.
The first question you want to ask of any goalkeeper is “can he keep the ball out of the net?” In Slonina’s case, the answer is “yes, sometimes.” In this report I will explain why that is the case.
One of the things that Slonina has going for him is that he is huge. He is listed as 6’3 and he has really long limbs. He has the perfect body type for a goalkeeper and this is no doubt part of the reason so many big clubs are following him. You can’t coach being really tall. Slonina is good at using his height to his advantage when closing down attackers in 1v1 situations. He makes a lot of saves where he is able to make himself big and give opposing strikers very little net to shoot at. You can see some examples below.
He also has quite good reflexes that allow him to react well to the ball changing direction quickly. Again, we can see some examples in the video below.
These saves all play quite well for youtube highlight compilations with clickbait titles like “Gaga Slonina: The Next Neuer!!?: Welcome to Real Madrid.” Indeed it is very impressive that he is able to pull off this type of save at such a young age in MLS. He shows good positioning in those 1v1 moments and good reflexes are always a plus for a goalkeeper. However, these clips presented in isolation present a bit of an unrealistic picture.
Slonina can indeed come up with big saves that win his team points. But he is also capable of having lapses in concentration which cost his team. Recently Slonina has been in a poor run of form and has made a couple of these mistakes. Consider these recent examples from matches against Toronto F.C and the New York Red Bulls.
Here we see Slonina making rudimentary errors in handling and diving technique. Here it benefits us to remember that he is only 18. It is quite normal for young and inexperienced goalkeepers to make a few mistakes like this at first. With more game time at the MLS level and experience, I would expect this type of error to become less common for Slonina. However, for now, they are an undeniable fact of life with him as your goalkeeper.
The best stat for judging a goalkeeper’s shot-stopping, in my opinion, is goals minus expected goals (G-xG). Or to phrase it in a more intuitive way “goals saved above expected.” Essentially this stat should tell us how many goals a goalkeeper has saved compared to what you would expect based on the quality of the shots he has faced. According to American Soccer Analysis there have been 44 goalkeepers who have played at least 1000 minutes in MLS over the past two seasons. Slonina ranks 22nd in goals saved above expected, exactly in the middle. For an 18-year-old with less than 30 professional games, that is pretty good. But it’s not like he is currently the best goalkeeper in MLS, or even particularly close to that level. Errors like the ones we looked at above are a big reason that he isn’t higher up the list.
Another big problem with Slonina’s shot-stopping is his tendency to parry the ball back into danger. He is quite good at holding on to long-range shots, even if they have a bit of dip and swerve on them. But any mid to close-range shot with a bit of power is almost inevitably getting pushed back into the centre of the box. Sometimes this gets Slonina in trouble as we can see in the clips below.
Slonina has a general problem with neutralising the ball. When we look at how he handles crosses we can see a very similar problem emerge. Slonina generally has a pretty good sense of when to come for a cross. He also usually does a pretty good job of getting to the ball. According to Fbref Slonina is in the 77th percentile for crosses stopped and in the 58th percentile for the % of crosses faced that he stops. But what those numbers don’t really capture is that Slonina frequently punches the ball back into danger or fails to hold onto it under pressure. Again, let’s look at some examples.
Now, I think the struggles with crosses are another instance where we have to take into account the fact that he is 18. It is pretty normal for young keepers to have some struggles with claiming crosses early in their career. The fact that Slonina is pretty good at getting to the ball and has a good sense of when to come for a cross suggests to me that this is an area of his game that can be developed. Certainly working on controlling the ball and not putting it back into danger will be a very important priority for the goalkeeper coaches of whichever European team snags him. But for the time being it remains a major weakness in his game and a barrier to him reaching the highest level.
Slonina is reasonably comfortable with the ball at his feet. He opts to play long balls quite frequently and his completion rate is reasonably high. He also looks reasonably comfortable playing short passes, though if he’s under pressure he usually just sends the ball long. I have chosen some clips that I feel form a fairly representative sample.
Slonina’s passing ability is not particularly special right now but notably, that part of his game has been free of the catastrophic errors we have seen in his shot-stopping. I think it’s an area of his game that should improve as he gets more experienced. As with all aspects of Slonina’s game, he is quite good for an 18-year-old but not yet amongst the best in MLS.
Slonina does not leave his line to cut out through balls that often. Fbref has him in the bottom 3rd for goalkeepers for both defensive actions outside of his 18-yard box. However, when he does leave his line he is usually quick and decisive. The same positioning and instincts that make him effective at getting to the ball on crosses also make him quite good at timing coming off his line correctly. Unlike when he is dealing with crosses, he generally does a good job of neutralising the threat.
As he grows in confidence and experience it is possible that Slonina will hit the levels of a Neuer or an Ederson when it comes to being a sweeper keeper. For now, he’s mostly picking his spots and making good interventions when there is an obvious opportunity to do so.
Overall I think Slonina is a goalkeeper with tremendous potential. There are not many 18-year-old goalkeepers who are first choice in a league like MLS. It makes sense for a top club to try and snatch him up now while he is still relatively affordable. However, this should be done with the idea that it will be at least a few years before he is ready to play in a top-five league. The smartest thing a team that buys Slonina can do is loan him straight back to Chicago for at least another season. He should be moved along very slowly, possibly with a series of progressively more challenging loans. Though his potential is very high, if I had to pick a team of MLS players to win a game next weekend, Slonina wouldn’t even make my game day 18. In three years he might be a top goalkeeper. But anybody expecting him to be Manuel Neuer next weekend is setting themselves up for disappointment.