The curious life of USMNT rising star John Tolkin: Future beach-dweller, world-class Wii Golfer and 'the world's most promising left-back'
He may only be 20 years old, but John Tolkin has it all figured out. When his soccer career is all over, he knows where he'll be.
"I just want to get a beach shack, a little house on the beach," he says. "I'll live off the land, fishing for my food every day, spearfishing, all that kind of stuff. I'll have like a boating business or something to do with the ocean because that's just the place to be."
Tolkin, as the above answer suggests, is a unique dude. He claims to be a "world-class Wii golfer" who is willing to take on all-comers. His signature mullet, which helped endear him to New York Red Bulls fans, suggests as much too.
When speaking to GOAL, Tolkin comes off as totally relaxed, but also a million percent ready to go. It fits his persona on the field, where he always seems absolutely unshakable despite his relative inexperience.
Recently, the International Centre for Sports Studies’ (CIES) Football Observatory named him the most promising Under-21 defensive left-back on the planet. But in talking to him, he comes off as someone that couldn't care less, while also hinting that he will definitely have noticed that sort of thing.
When it comes to soccer, Tolkin says he studies any fellow left-footers he can find. His two favorites? Lionel Messi and Leighton Baines, two players that usually aren't named together for much of anything.
But his interests aren't just limited to soccer. He really just likes talking to people, being around people, and learning about people. "I'm very curious," he says, "about a lot of things.
That curiosity is what will likely lead him to the ocean someday, but that's all a long way away. His journey is just beginning and, in some ways, the next step comes this month near the beaches of Los Angeles.
Tolkin was called up to his first U.S. men's national team camp this week as he begins his path toward the 2026 World Cup. He's been with the national team before as a guest player for a fitness camp ahead of the team's trip to Qatar, but this is his first real call-up, his first real step into the international game.
And, somehow, it feels like a long time coming. Tolkin feels he showed up well at that camp and left knowing that his time was just around the corner. He didn't quite arrive in time to book a World Cup spot, even with the backup left-back position being a weakness, but he knew he'd be with the national team before long thanks to his breakthrough in MLS.
Despite his age, the Red Bulls defender emerged as one of the best fullbacks in the league in 2022, his second full MLS season after two years in the USL. He was named the club's Defender of the Year, further establishing himself as a key player for his hometown club.
With a combination of speed, flair and a very legitimate don't-give-a-damn attitude on the defensive end, Tolkin looks like he could be the answer at left-back for the USMNT.
In recent months, the world has noticed. He's been linked with transfers to Europe, although one hasn't materialized just yet. The Red Bulls are preparing for his seemingly-inevitable exit, having signed two fullbacks this offseason.
"Looking back now," Tolkin begins, "I never would have thought I'd be here, you know? It's kind of insane to think about that, with the transfer stuff and all of that. Some of my trainers will come to me and be like, 'What's this? What am I looking at?' And I'm just like, 'Look, man, I don't know what to tell you.'
"It's all so slow, like day to day, but then you look back and you're like, 'Where the heck did time go?' What is it? My fourth year now? Like, you're kidding, no way. It feels like I just started, but yeah, I've been enjoying every moment of it."
SHOUTOUT TO CHATHAM, NJ 📣 pic.twitter.com/74dv0yBvkb— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) May 11, 2022
Tolkin is certainly just getting started. He has 92 professional games to his name, but he is very much still a young player, even if he doesn't necessarily see himself that way. He signed his first pro contract in 2020 after five years in the Red Bull academy, making him the heir apparent to predecessors like Tyler Adams and Matt Miazga.
And, like those two, he has that certain something or, as he explains it, that "Jersey stubbornness". Neither Adams nor Miazga have ever been the type to back down, with the former becoming the youngest captain at the World Cup last fall with the USMNT. From his debut with the Red Bulls all those years ago, Adams' maturity and confidence were totally apparent, and Tolkin is similar in that way.
"I've seen Tyler," he says, "and it gives you a clear pathway and kind of just makes you think it's possible, that you could be playing with these guys one day."
Tokin adds that he feels like he's rarely phased on the field. He doesn't get starstruck or overawed, at least in his own mind. He looks back at a friendly last summer against Barcelona where he went toe-to-toe with Ousmane Dembele in front of one his childhood idols, Xavi. In his mind, if he can survive that, he's ready for almost anything.
"I think if you go in with the mentality, like 'Oh my gosh, look what I'm playing against', I think you've already lost your battle," he says. "Obviously, I have a ton of respect for the opponents, but it's like, who's gonna come out on top?"
In true Tolkin fashion, he then gets a bit more philosophical: "Like, our lives come to an end at some point," he says. "It sounds dark, but like, let's just go for it, you know? It doesn't matter if you mess up. It's great if you do great, but I kind of just think like that."
That mindset, and Tolkin's personality in general, make him a magnet for attention. Sections of Red Bulls Twitter eagerly await updates on his hair, which has gone from mullet to bleached to, somewhat recently, braided while on vacation.
January 3, 2023
"Off the field with the hair and stuff, I just am who I am," he says. "I don't care if people hate it. It's what I like to do and when people hate on it, it honestly makes me happy. I like to embrace the hate, the comments, the negative comments. I think it's really hilarious that somebody would go out of their way to say something like that to you. I'm true to myself, I think, and that's gotten me where I am."
Where Tolkin is a Red Bulls star, USMNT newcomer, part-time philosopher, definitely full-time Wii Golf champion, future beach shack-dwelling fisherman making his own way.
He'll be bringing all of that to LA for his first USMNT camp, before then turning focus towards the 2023 season, which may end up being his last in MLS. And then there's the Gold Cup, Nations League, Olympics, and the 2026 World Cup.
"There's so much to look forward to," he says. "There are things happening and it's good and it's exciting, and I'm just trying to stay grounded. I think that's the most important thing. If you get too carried away then you just get completely thrown off track.
"It all kind of reminds me of when I first joined the Red Bulls actually, signing that deal. You kind of have to make your way through the ranks and just bust your ass every day. I kind of have that same feeling, that same motivation, that same hunger to go there and then be able to stay there."
The beach house dream will have to wait, at least for a few years. Tolkin has too many other things to be curious about first.