Ever since Gaga Slonina signed his homegrown deal in the winter of 2019, we’ve known this day would come. The Fire’s 18-year-old goalkeeping prodigy signed a deal with Chelsea in August, with an agreement to finish the season in Chicago. While it may seem tempting to try to lure him back for another season on loan, an idea that sporting director Georg Heitz has tossed around on numerous occasions, that is not necessarily in the best interests of either club or player. It just so happens that the Fire have another 18-year-old goalkeeper with world-class talent waiting in the wings.
At any other club in the country, Chris Brady would be the top prospect, as Gaga is currently. By sheer chance, though, he came up at the same club as his $15 million compatriot who plays the same position on the field. In addition to winning the Golden Glove at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and leading Team USA back to the Olympics for the first time since 2008, Brady has easily been the best goalkeeper in MLS Next Pro this season.
The stats speak for themselves; when Brady has been in goal, Fire II have only conceded 0.83 goals per game. Without Brady, the same Fire II defense has shipped, on average, 3.09 goals per game; a truly astounding statistic. Advanced statistics show that he is head and shoulders above every other goalkeeper in MLS Next Pro, and at this point, he has earned the opportunity to get a chance in Major League Soccer. It would be holding him back to keep him in the reserves given how dominant he’s been in 2022 at that level.
But what about Gaga? He’s certainly a more complete and well-rounded goalkeeper than Brady at this moment in time. Slonina has shown tremendous growth even throughout this season and, over the last two months, has often been single-handedly keeping the Fire in games. Slonina’s performances have been so good, in fact, that fans of Chelsea across the pond are taking notice, and some are even calling for him to get opportunities as soon as he arrives in January. While that seems slightly farfetched, the 18-year-old would benefit from an opportunity to step outside of his comfort zone, whether that means playing with the Chelsea Under-23s or going on loan elsewhere in Europe. Gaga has accomplished just about everything he can in MLS at the individual level; another spell with the Fire would not necessarily push him in the way that he needs.
The downside of handing Brady the keys in MLS, though, is that he is still yet to debut for the first team. Gaga Slonina started the first 32 games of this season, playing every single minute, and head coach Ezra Hendrickson justifiably went with his #1 even when hopes of making the playoffs were dwindling. The Fire were officially eliminated a few weeks ago, and Slonina happened to go down with an injury ahead of the most recent game. Rather than use this opportunity, a dead-rubber game in Cincinnati with nothing to lose, to give Brady a chance to prove himself, Ezra went with the veteran backup Spencer Richey.
“Brady had never played in a game,” Hendrickson told the media on Saturday. “We thought maybe this game might be a little too huge for his debut because you have to be very careful how you initiate a young player like that, so to speak, especially in that position.”
This leaves the Fire with just 90 minutes of soccer left in 2022 and potentially only 90 minutes left for Gaga Slonina as a Chicago Fire player. The Fire’s plan has always been for Brady to be the successor, and there is no reason to believe that’s changed given how good he has been for club and country. However, it would be hard to justify going into a new season with a starting goalkeeper who has never played an MLS game. If a week 33 matchup with nothing to lose is too big of an occasion for one to debut, then an opening day match is surely too huge. Though 90 minutes in a match between two teams already eliminated from playoff contention is not the finest proving ground, it would be a huge missed opportunity not to put Brady on the field at some point.
“We have a plan going into the last game of the season,” Hendrickson said when asked who would play in goal this weekend. “You’ll know that maybe about Thursday or Friday next week.”
If Slonina is fit to play, one would have to imagine that he will get the start in what will be his final game in Chicago (unless, as previously mentioned, the club negotiates to bring him back in 2023). However, one possibility is that Brady could be subbed into the game at some point, allowing Gaga to walk off the field to rapturous applause as the metaphorical torch is handed over to his fellow academy product. It would provide Slonina with a great opportunity to say goodbye to the fans in Chicago and for the Fire supporters to do the same as he moves on to his new adventure at one of the biggest clubs in the world. Even just 30 or 60 minutes would allow Brady to get his feet wet in MLS and work towards being the #1 in 2023.
Whatever happens on Sunday, it will be a bittersweet moment as Chicago bids farewell to one of its bright young stars. If all goes as hoped, Gaga will accomplish great things on the biggest stage in Europe, and he has a very bright future in front of him. But rest assured, the goalkeeping position in Chicago will be in safe hands.