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Gabriel Slonina, 17, shines in his first pro start as the Chicago Fire draw with NYCFC 0-0

Now the question: should the Fire start him going forward?

Gabriel Slonina rolls the ball to a Chicago Fire teammate during Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with NYCFC
Chicago Fire FC

In a city that loves a quarterback controversy, the Chicago Fire now have a goalkeeper controversy. But, in this case it’s a positive, and it’s more a question of when, rather than if, Gabriel Slonina will take over for Bobby Shuttleworth in net.

Shuttleworth, 34, has been brilliant this season—one of the bright spots in a mostly gloomy season—but he needed a break Wednesday night against New York City FC. Enter 17-year-old Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina, who became the youngest goalkeeper in MLS history to start a match. His four saves and solid play helped keep NYCFC’s potent offense off the board, securing a point for his team in a 0-0 draw at Soldier Field.

“I’m super, super thankful for the tie first and foremost,” Slonina said. “Sorry my mind’s all over the place right now. But super emotional, a lot of hard work went into this moment but I’m proud of the team for fighting and keeping this a tie and getting a point. Because you know every point is important in the season and yeah I’m super grateful and thankful for the team and just feeling great right now.”

Daniel Bartel/Chicago Fire FC

The Fire finished the halfway point of the 2021 MLS season at 3-9-5, in 12th place with 14 points, a full 10 points out of a playoff spot. With one of the team’s best players, Przemyslaw Frankowski, on the verge of a transfer to Ligue 1, is it time to start focusing on 2022, and give Slonina more starts in net?

“That is not something I can give you the answer (to) now,” head coach Raphael Wicky said. “We obviously have Bobby, a goalkeeper who has a great season, who is doing a great job for us. He is right now the number one. He has done really, really great games for us. Right now, we will see how Bobby’s knee reacts, how the season goes; there are a lot of games coming. We have all these away trips and we will see what minutes Gaga will get and decide that game-by-game and week-by-week. But yeah, that is what we will do.”

There are examples of MLS teams turning over the starting job to a teenage keeper with success. D.C. United’s Bill Hamid took over at 19, and went on to start for a decade plus, outside of a brief run in Europe. Tim Howard was also 19 when he started with the MetroStars, made 88 appearances, and earned a transfer to Manchester United. For Slonina, it shows it’s possible to keep dreaming big.

“I think if I had a message to tell all the kids that are aspiring to be professional soccer players, it’s to just never give up,” Slonina said. “Just keep doing you, keep giving all every single day to be the best person and teammate you can be for each other. And the hard work will pay off because everything pays off in the end. It’s just about patience, positivity, discipline, consistency.

“So much goes into a good performance and I think it’s just about having huge ambitions and never letting anyone tell you that you can’t do what you want to set out to do,” he continued. “Because I was a kid just like them, you know, and I had dreams to play at Soldier Field. I have dreams of becoming the best goalkeeper in the world, and it’s just to never give up and never let anyone tell you what you can do and what you can’t do.”

The Fire are back in action Sunday at Soldier Field against the New York Red Bulls (5 p.m CT, WGN-TV, CFFC Live).

Chicago Fire FC: GK G. Slonina, D Kappelhof (Terán 90+3’), D Pineda, D Calvo©, M Sekulić, M Medrán, M Giménez, M Aliseda, M Bornstein (Gutiérrez 87’), F Ivanov (Berić 64’), F Offor (Stojanović 87’)

Subs not used: GK Brady, D Espinoza, M Monis, F Collier

New York City FC: GK Johnson, D Tinnerholm, D Chanot, D Callens, D Thorarinsson (Amundsen 83’), M Morales, M Parks, M Moralez (Jasson 90+5’), M Medina (Tajouri-Shradi 67’), M Thiago (Acevedo 67’), F Castellanos (Rodríguez 83’)

Subs not used: GK Barraza, D Gray, D Ibeagha, M Rocha

Stats Summary: CHI / NYC

Shots: 5 / 15

Shots on Goal: 1 / 4

Passing Accuracy: 81.4% / 79.4%

Saves: 4 / 1

Corners: 2 / 2

Fouls: 9 / 15

Offsides: 3 / 0

Possession: 53.0% / 47.0%

Attendance: 8,371