Every day before and after training, Gabriel Sloninawrites in his journal.
Chelsea’s new goalkeeper, signed from Chicago Fireof MLS for an initial £8.1million ($10m) last summer, has followed the same routine for the past 11 years. Now 18, he has already filled 15 books with notes and continues to use them as a point of reference. He has not let up since moving to England.
These diaries detail goals Slonina has set himself for the short, medium and long-term as well as particular aspects he wants to recall from training or games, both good and bad.
One of the reasons he scribbles down his thoughts prior to a session is to help focus on what he wants to achieve that day, to ensure his career remains on an upward curve.
It is early days for him at Chelsea, but clearly the exercise is paying off.
Slonina, who comes across as mature for one so young, was signed very much with the future in mind. However, he is ambitious and has set sights on becoming the club’s and the USMNT’s No 1 one day.
After signing in August, the teenager had to wait to work with his new team-mates as he was loaned back to Chicago until the end of the MLS season in November. He officially joined Graham Potter’s squad in January, but did benefit from an early taster of life at the club in October (Chicago failed to make the end-of-season title play-offs) when attending the away game at Brentford and Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge three days later.
He has settled down quickly in new surroundings. Living in a flat near the club’s training ground in Surrey, south of London — preferring there to the city centre, where there are far more distractions — he maintains a strict daily regime; bed by 10pm every night, and rising by 7am at the latest. He genuinely is one of the first players into the Cobham complex each day, and one of the last to leave.
Slonina’s work ethic has not gone unnoticed, not least by Chelsea’s new American owners. Everyone at the club has got used to calling him ‘Gaga’, a nickname given to him by his family when he was a youngster and has nothing to do with the singer. The name stuck and he has even adopted it as his Twitter handle.
Most of his week is spent training with the first team, working alongside Kepa Arrizabalaga, Edouard Mendy and Marcus Bettinelli, plus goalkeeping coaches Ben Roberts and Hilario. Those elder statesmen have given the youngster a warm welcome and are always on hand to answer his questions. Slonina recognises he has a lot to learn from them as he works to ascend to their level.
Game time so far has been with the under-21s in Premier League 2. He has made four appearances to date and showcased his potential, conceding just once as Chelsea recorded three wins and a draw in those matches. There are five more fixtures this season and Slonina is expected to feature in the majority.
The fact the under-21s are involved in a title battle with their Manchester City counterparts — Chelsea are a point ahead but City have two games in hand, and are at home to the west Londoners in mid-April — means there is an element of pressure on him to perform. The club will learn much from how he handles it.
In a 1-0 home win over Arsenal last month, Slonina made his mark. It was not just the saves he made en route to a clean sheet, but he demonstrated an ability to pass the ball out from the back — a key quality all keepers must have these days. He was also not shy about shouting instructions to team-mates, commanding his back line efficiently.
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Despite spending most of his time fraternising with the senior players, there is no sense of ego when he drops down to play with the development squad. When Leo Castledine scored the only goal of the game in the 86th minute that night against Arsenal, Slonina ran the length of the pitch to join in the celebrations as if he had been playing with them for years.
Under-21s coach Mark Robinson is certainly impressed by what he has seen so far.
“He’s got a fantastic attitude,” Robinson tells The Athletic. “He does not train with us that often, but when he does he integrates himself into the group brilliantly. It’s not that he just comes in, plays a game and goes back — that it is just a match for him. You saw that in his celebrations against Arsenal — that is what you want. Someone totally invested in what you are doing.
“You can see he has developed bonds with the other players, celebrating when they do a block or a tackle in front of him. He only trains with us once a week but he has made a real effort to bond with everyone; buying into what we are doing, asking questions. He goes out of his way to come to find us to ask extra things. That is what you need.
“His performance against Arsenal was his best game for us. The way he commanded everything. It can take a bit of time. We are asking him to play quite high at times to join in with possession and to do things that perhaps he was not asked to do at his previous club. He is totally invested. He is brilliant, a pleasure to have around, and feels part of the group.”
Slonina’s confidence is hardly a surprise. After becoming the youngest goalkeeper to make his debut in MLS at 17 years and 81 days in August 2021, in January he became the youngest ’keeper to play for the U.S. senior team, earning his first cap in a friendly against Serbia aged just 18 years and 255 days.
He had hoped to be named in the squad again this month for CONCACAF Nations League games against Grenada and El Salvador, though he didn’t make Anthony Hudson’s squad of 24. Another target on the horizon is the Under-20s World Cup, which begins in Indonesia in May and June.
Just like compatriot Christian Pulisic, Slonina is aware his progress will draw even greater scrutiny in his homeland after such a high-profile transfer to Chelsea. Meditation, another activity he took up a few years ago, helps block out any noise from the outside and allows him to retain focus on progression.
It was this time last year that Slonina feared his dream move to Stamford Bridge was going to fall through. Most of the work over a transfer had already been done in the January with former Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, then the club’s technical and performance advisor, key to negotiations.
Cech is one of Slonina’s idols, a player whose game he studied growing up, so to receive a call from the man himself saying how much he was wanted by, and would fit in at, Chelsea was obviously a telling factor in his decision to leave Chicago.
But the deal was put on hold when then-owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned and the club got put up for sale. For a while it looked like Real Madrid would sign him instead, but as soon as the Todd Boehly-Clearlake consortium bought Chelsea last May, it was made clear to Slonina how much they wanted to revive the move. He did not think twice — Cech, plus Hilario, ultimately made the difference.
When the switch was complete, Cech sent a message congratulating and wishing him all the best, even though by that point he had left the club.
Clearly, Slonina has no regrets.
“It’s gone great so far,” he told the club’s website last month. “All the goalkeepers, the entire coaching staff and the team are top professionals. They want you to improve, so being around that environment has been amazing. I think I’ve made huge strides, improving as a player and in a personal field, so hopefully I continue to keep doing that working with this group of guys.
“I think I’ve improved in everything; just being able to see the little things that I didn’t even think about before and working on those, tweaking them to make me quicker, to make me stronger, to make me more powerful.
“After I signed in August it’s been an incredible journey and, honestly, it still doesn’t feel real, coming in and training at the Chelsea facilities. I watched this team growing up and it’s a dream come true.”
Inevitably, fans will wonder what happens next.
Slonina is currently fourth in the first-team pecking order at Chelsea, although there is a good chance at least two of the three men ahead of him will leave in the summer — Bettinelli’s contract runs out in June and there is a strong possibility Mendy, first choice for the previous two seasons, will be sold after being relegated to No 2 behind Kepa by Potter.
However, Chelsea are considering buying a goalkeeper, so that may impact on the young American.
As things stand, a decision on whether he stays to be one of three in the senior squad for 2023-24 or goes out on loan will wait until pre-season is well underway.
Until then, as he will have noted in his diary, life at Chelsea has been so far, so good.