MLS silly season is in full swing, with several clubs already making big swings in the market in a renewed attempt at a Cup run. Incoming business for the New York Red Bulls has been customarily slow, expected to pick up soon with links to foreign strikers and family friends.
But one major question mark lingers around fan favorite left back John Tolkin, with sources confirming more tangible links for a move abroad that had been practically assumed since the promising fullback integrated into the senior side. Recently named the most promising U-21 “defensive left-back” in the world by Swiss statistics nerds at the CIES Football Observatory, the Chatham native is reported to have marked interest from New York’s siblings in Salzburg, with more casual looks from Leipzig, Nottingham Forest, and an Anderlecht side already accustomed to poaching New York fullbacks.
The 20-year-old has enjoyed a smooth transition through the New York ranks, joining the Red Bulls academy in 2015, making his Red Bulls II debut in 2019, and made his first team debut in 2021, just a year after graduating high school. Since then he has enjoyed two full seasons as the starting left-back, splitting time with Andrew Gutman in 2021, and running unopposed in 2022, missing only 2 MLS games. Currently sitting on 59 first-team appearances and 2 goals, the former US U-17’s potential has been evident since his first game, as he has shown remarkable composure and maturity in his play for his age since his debut. Tolkin is extremely solid in possession, having played more centrally in his academy days, composed and able to provide a consistent outlet for center-backs or midfielders. Lauded as the next great Homegrown after concerning stagnation from an academy setup that despite its reputation, had failed to produce a Tyler Adams or Matt Miazga caliber player in some time, Tolkin was always destined for bigger things, and entering his third MLS season his time may have just come. Tolkin still has room for growth, and will certainly be wary of making the all too common mistake of leaving home too soon à la Kyle Duncan, but the club seems to be taking steps to assure they are fully prepared when he does leave.
It’s no coincidence that New York have made two moves on left-backs in the same offseason Tolkin’s European interest has commenced, with Red Bulls II starter Curtis Ofori and University of Connecticut wide man Jayden Reid signed to Homegrown contracts early. While still young and very raw, Ofori had long been a standout in USL play and was due a promotion soon, and projects to be the starter in the case of a Tolkin move. Reid was a more unexpected move, but the former Huskie is no slouch either, making 51 appearances over four seasons at UConn, with 3 goals and 7 assists in his collegiate career. The New York native projects as a more attack-minded player than his aforementioned colleagues, but with Red Bull Academy experience he should slot well into the Red Bull II setup that he’s likely to spend most of the year with.
With Tolkin’s uncertain departure in mind, opting to sign two young replacements to fill out the depth chart is not only peak Red Bulls, but also a more logical decision than panic-buying a more expensive option. The club will be well-served by Ofori and Reid if Tolkin’s expected departure comes to fruition, but the very real possibility that Tolkin stays will not be a problem, as Ofori and Reid would benefit from playing understudy for a year, with Reid likely to not see much senior action regardless. While the Reid and Ofori moves have been largely ignored by a fanbase once again clamoring for more big name moves akin to Kaku and Gonzalo Veron, they are solid improving moves for an organization trying to figure out its progressing identity.
Onto more important matters, it’s not all good news on the Red Bulls front, as around the same time as the transfer rumors, photos emerged of Tolkin… wearing box braids. Initially photographed being braided on his Instagram while on vacation in Turks and Caicos, a Twitter selfie confirming the final result sent the 20 people who were paying attention into a frenzy. Tolkin has always made up for his relatively routine playing style with his flagrant hairstyles, famously sporting a mullet in his early professional days, before going blonde in 2021 and sparking a bleach craze in the squad that tragically took the souls of Fabio, Klimala, and even a then-injured Aaron Long.
After resetting with a buzz cut in early 2022, the question on everyone’s mind was, what’s next? Rumors of a return to the mullet never came to fruition, but no one could have expected this turn. Taking risks will never be faulted, but what exactly Tolkin was thinking when he went for the Romeo Beckham look will only be known by the man himself and the customary 2-3 teenage buddies he likely consulted. One can only assume this is a show of solidarity with Ofori and Reid, who have also sported the hairstyle. It does not suit him nearly as well, but can one fault a risk-taker? Yes. Yes one can.
At least he didn’t get cornrows.