It was late December, and Gaga Slonina needed to start packing. In just a few days, the 18-year-old former Chicago Fire goalkeeper would trade his childhood bedroom in Addison for an apartment in London. He was set to join English Premier League giant Chelsea, which had agreed to pay up to $15 million to his old club to sign Slonina to a six-year deal. (His own annual compensation will jump from $148,000 to an estimated $2.6 million, according to the website Capology.) “Being on my own is something I look forward to,” Slonina says matter-of-factly. “You kind of have to become more responsible and do the things that adults have to do in their daily life.”

It’s a big move, but then again, Slonina isn’t your average teenager. He meditates daily. (Goalkeeping, he says, is “80 to 90 percent mental.”) He writes in his journal every day. (He’s filled 15 of them.) And he keeps a list of his goals on a dry erase board in his room. One of them? “To become a Chelsea legend.” But he has even loftier aspirations. “You always see kids wanting to be like MJ,” Slonina says. “I want to be that person in football as a goalkeeper.”

The son of Polish immigrants, Slonina (whose first name is Gabriel — he picked up the nickname Gaga back when he played Addison Park District soccer) turned pro at 14. He got his first start for the Fire in August 2021, but it almost didn’t happen. Just hours beforehand, his old BMW broke down on I-290 on the way to Soldier Field. The Fire ordered him an Uber, but to reach the pickup spot, the 6-foot-4 keeper had to hop over the median and cross the expressway. Slonina, who at 17 became the youngest starting goalkeeper in MLS history, wasn’t fazed — he ended up keeping a clean sheet. 

Soon Petr Cech, Chelsea’s iconic former goalkeeper and then a club adviser, was DM’ing him on Instagram. (“I thought it was fake,” Slonina recalls.) Now Slonina will fight to become a starter for his new team — and his native country. The World Cup is coming to North America in 2026, and there’s a good chance he will be in net for the United States. That’s his goal, anyway. He may even write it down.