On Tuesday, Chicago Fire goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina’s long-speculated transfer to Chelsea FC of the English Premier League was formally announced by both Clubs.
The multi-million dollar transfer set a Club record and instantly placed Slonina near the top of the list of the highest-profile outgoing transfers in Major League Soccer history.
On Wednesday, Fire Sporting Director Georg Heitz and Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson fielded questions on Slonina’s transfer saga, discussing both how it came to be and their confidence in the 18-year-old’s future success.
“Kudos definitely go to all the coaches who raised Gaga, to the whole academy staff” Heitz began. “He's a player who has been with us for such a long time. But the guy who most contributed to this is the player himself. Gaga is incredibly mature. He’s still 18 and you know, when it comes to this whole transfer, this was a pretty complicated (deal).”
Tuesday’s announcement ended months of conjecture surrounding Slonina’s future, who at one point had been additionally been publicly linked to Spanish giants Real Madrid and German superpower Bayern Munich. That future now includes a six-year contract with Chelsea that will run through the 2028 season. In the present, Slonina will finish the 2022 MLS season on loan with the Fire, remaining in Chicago through the end of the year.
“We bought some time now due to the fact that we loaned him back,” Heitz said. “Of course, it is a great idea to also maybe loan him for the 2023 season, but this is to be discussed with Chelsea, of course. We haven't discussed it so far.”
Chelsea’s interest in the Addison, Ill. native began in earnest in January of this year, when initial contact with Heitz was made. That interest then persisted despite changes to their ownership in the spring. On May 6, American businessman Todd Boehly had his ownership bid accepted by the club, and was formally installed on May 30.
“Todd had been informed about this transfer before, and he had given (the) green light before,” Heitz said. “Nevertheless, he wanted to double-check. We had a really nice chat.”
“They followed him for months,” Heitz added. “I think he'll be in a good spot there.”
Slonina’s transfer saga wasn’t without its complications. Alongside his future at the club level, Slonina’s rising profile saw interest swirl in who he’d represent on the international level. A dual-national, Slonina could elect to play for either the United States or his family’s native Poland.
As the volume in those conversations rose, Slonina was forced to navigate a difficult stretch of spring performances.
“We sat down, spoke with him and let him know that we're still confident in him,” Hendrickson said. “He was our No. 1, so we gave him that confidence.”
“The thing with his position is, you know, he's a young player, and they go through ups and they go through downs,” Hendrickson added. “When a goalkeeper makes a mistake, it's usually a direct cost for a goal. Young forwards, young midfielders make mistakes - whether it be a bad pass or maybe missed goal or something like that - and it sometimes doesn't directly hurt the team.”
“We never lost faith in him. We never lost confidence.”
Slonina regained his footing coming out of the June international break, to the point where he’s collected 10 clean sheets through his 23 matches played. That total represents the second-highest in the league, level with Philadelphia’s Andre Blake and two behind New York City FC’s Sean Johnson.
“His mindset is very special, and that's also what I mean by saying he is the one who contributed the most to this transfer,” Heitz said. “It's really outstanding what he did. As any young player, he will have to learn what it means to deal with setbacks, because in every career you experience setbacks. That's absolutely clear.”
Having just arrived in Chicago in December, Hendrickson’s history with Slonina isn’t as lengthy as other members of the Fire staff and roster. The first-year Fire head coach has been impressed with how the young ‘keeper has matured in the short time they’ve had to work together.
“A young, teenage guy like that being able to handle all that attention - all that pressure that comes along with it - was great for me to see as a coach,” Hendrickson said. “I watched this kid continue to develop from preseason to where we are now, and I've seen growth in just six, seven months.”
“One thing just beyond his maturity on the field and his hard work - I watch him after some games, some home games, and he's the one young player that's there cleaning up the locker room afterwards,” he added. “You know, not even being asked to do it. He just took it upon himself to do that, and that speaks volumes to me.”
“And so I always knew that this day would come.”
Slonina’s immediate challenge is to help the Fire push for a spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs. From there - just like his impending move to London - anything is possible.
“His potential is huge,” Heitz concluded. “The challenge is huge. We speak about the EPL - a big club in the EPL - but I'm very confident. I have no sorrows when it comes to his future.”