John Tolkin's hair, impressive play are impossible to ignore

John Tolkin, the 20-year-old New York Red Bulls' champion of free-flowing and notoriously ever-changing locks, was worried he was going to lose his hair. "I think I'm going to be bald come 30 years of age, so I'm trying to get in every possible hairstyle I can do," he said earlier this year.

Fast-forward a few months, however, and he's rethinking that narrative.

"I think I need to eat those words," the young star explained to ESPN during an interview at his team's New Jersey training facility, shoulder-length stringy bleached blond tresses hanging under a backwards baseball hat. "I always thought it was your father's hair genes, but that's not right. It's your mother's father, and I think he's got a decent set of hair, so I might be all right."

He was getting a little annoyed by the length, though. That glorious mane got in his eyes during a post-training shower earlier in the day, and he really wanted to shave it off. But first, he was thinking mullet. Obviously. There were thoughts of a man bun, too, but it's not quite long enough, and he doesn't have the patience to let it grow more. But he could, if he wanted.

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The point is there are lots of possibilities for Tolkin's hair, including the lengthy faux hawk he ultimately decided on earlier this month.

There are also lots of opportunity for Tolkin the player, who's enjoyed a rapid rise since signing a Homegrown contract in January 2020. The left-back started 22 matches in 2021, then 31 the next year, a campaign that saw him named New York Red Bulls Defender of the Year. This January, he made his United States men's national team debut, going 81 minutes in a scoreless draw against Colombia.

With his bleach-blond locks demanding attention, and his play on the pitch making it impossible for the soccer world to look away, Tolkin's 2023 season was supposed to be the next step -- and a big one.

"In my eyes in preseason, the Supporters' Shield seemed like a tangible thing," he said. "I thought we were rolling."

Reality, however, hasn't quite worked out that way. The Red Bulls are 11th in the 15-team Eastern Conference with just three wins in their first 14 games. This is the hardest part of his short, charmed career, with all the not-winning serving as a mental and physical drain. It's a strange spot as Tolkin is playing well, a sure-thing starter who has already surpassed his assist total from the previous campaign, even as the team struggles to win. He occasionally talks with friends and family about the team's difficulties, but he'd rather not speak about it to anyone.

"I like to take it on by myself," he said. "Just kind of acknowledging it myself is for me what I like to do."

And besides, maybe things aren't as dire as they appear. This is early(ish) season MLS, where despite having the second-fewest wins in the conference, the Red Bulls are just two points out of a playoff place. Before our interview, Tolkin, who "doesn't like" stats but acknowledges their place and value in the modern game -- a position where most athletes find themselves -- was "just looking at stats and it was like, 'Do we have the lowest expected goals against?'" Yes, according to TruMedia Stats Perform, giving some credence to his sense that the backline and the team are playing better than the results would indicate.

"We just need a win," he said. "A win will take us to a whole new mental level, you know? I think playoffs is our goal right now. That's just about as far as we can see."

He might have been right. The Red Bulls snapped a seven-game winless streak in the league by beating rivals New York City FC on May 13. They made it two victories in their past three by topping CF Montreal on Saturday.

When Tolkin was a kid, he'd look at Red Bull Arena from the backseat of a car on I-95 or I-280, or sit in the stands watching his hometown team play and believe that could be him on the field. Actually doing so, however, felt so very far away.

"I'd think, I think I can play there," he said. "But also that seems crazy. Like, no way that would actually happen, you know? I definitely want to be there. I don't know how, but I want to."

The road to Harrison started at his local Chatham United Soccer and ran through a stop at Ironbound Soccer Club before arriving at the Red Bulls Academy in 2015. While Tolkin credits all the training for honing his technical abilities, he also thinks it developed naturally when he was growing up and battling with his friends.

"The game 'World Cup' was a huge, huge thing in my neighborhood," he said. "We were there every single day, all day, probably like 10 or 15 of us at the field, trying to dribble through everybody and do all sorts of crazy stuff that I wouldn't try on the backline."

This thread of friendship and family runs through the Jersey kid. He still lives at home -- "There's no reason to leave. I'm saving so much money and spending time with my family." -- 15 minutes from training and 20 minutes from Red Bull Arena. Everyone calls him "JMi," short for John Michael, a nickname conferred upon him by an uncle when he was so young Tolkin doesn't remember the moment. It's so engrained that he says he doesn't answer to the name John, although John Michael registers: "I know I'm in trouble if somebody's calling me John Michael."

And then there's Wii Golf. Tolkin's proud of his skills, a combination of "natural ability," "having a knack for video games" and "I mean, I play a lot." The Wii Golf battles go long into the evening, those neighborhood kids now young men, games of World Cup traded for a video game released when they were in pre-kindergarten.

"Wii Golf is one of the things we love," Tolkin said. "It's a huge thing for us. We can all hang out, six, seven, eight of us playing all night."

He admits to being only second best in the group behind his friend who usually hosts the gatherings. ("He's got more practice.") But they play teams, and Tolkin and the host are an unbreakable duo, dominating the pixelated space. "We'll never never switch. It's funny," he offers up in a way that's charming enough to think it might be fun to get waxed in Wii Golf.

But this comfortable existence is coming to an end. The world is starting to pay attention. The International Centre for Sports Studies' Football Observatory recently named Tolkin the most promising under-21 defensive left-back in the world, which is quite an honor (and quite a mouthful). Asked if he's likely to move on from NYRB, he demurred in a way that made it seem probable in the near future.

"Yeah, hopefully," he said. "Hopefully soon. That's what I want to do."

No worries, though. You can play Wii Golf in Europe.