For years, Gabriel Slonina has gone by a nickname: Gaga. He’s not entirely sure why, and he knows when you hear Gaga, you think of the flamboyant, award-winning singer. But Slonina hopes one day, the mononym will make you think of him.
"Hopefully I’ll change that in Chicago soon," Slonina said. "I want Gaga to be the nickname that goes around, and people think, when they hear Gaga, they think of this unstoppable monster in goal instead of Lady Gaga."
Talk to the Fire FC goalkeeper, and a few things are obvious. He’s confident. He’s intelligent. And yes, he’s young. The Addison native is a pro soccer player in his hometown at just 17 years old.
"Sometimes driving and seeing the city and realizing I play for this city, it’s an amazing feeling," Slonina said.
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Is it a dream come true?
"One hundred percent, it’s a dream come true."
The Fire signed Gaga as a Homegrown Player in 2019. He was 14 years old at the time. Since then, he’s been driven to improve and maximize the potential the club saw in him.
"I knew it was going to be a long road ahead of me, and from that moment on, the work just started," remembers Slonina. "Nothing got easier. I think a lot of people don’t realize the amount of work that happens after you sign. That’s when the real work starts."
The work paid off when the 6-foot-4 keeper made his first appearance on Aug. 4. That day against New York City FC, Gaga became the youngest goalie in MLS history, and he more than proved he belonged, registering a shutout.
"That morning, I woke up with the game – I was calm, I was focused,” said Slonina. "I knew that I'm going to prepare myself like I have every other game when I haven’t played, so when I got that moment to play, it was like I’ve been doing it my entire career. So I think a lot of people can say it was luck, but I think luck is when preparation meets opportunity," he adds.
Since his first start, he’s made nine more. He’s becoming more well-known, but he’s still a teenager trying to finish his high school degree online and living with his parents in the western suburbs.
"I still do the dishes, take the trash out and do regular groceries, stuff like that,” Slonina said. "It’s still normal. I don’t like to make someone else do it. I do it myself, because everything you do in life translates to how you play on the field, I think."
It’s a story worthy of a Hollywood script: 17-year-old kid makes history for his hometown MLS team. But does Gaga ever find himself wishing life was normal?
"Honestly, no," Slonina said quickly. "I love this life. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of, and I’m going to do everything to harness it and make sure that I continue to live this life the way I always wanted to."