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John Tolkin styling before his stellar performance against the Columbus Crew (Credit: New York Red Bulls)
John Tolkin, with the drippiest drip imaginable, Arrives at Red Bull Arena ahead of New York’s match against the Columbus Crew (Credit: New York Red Bulls)

The New York Red Bulls enter the first international break of the 2022 season on a sour note. Darlington Nagbe’s stoppage time goal lifted the Columbus Crew to a 1-1 draw with New York. This was after RBNY took the lead late in the second half at Red Bull Arena. With a record of two wins, one draw, and a loss to start the year the Bulls currently sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The game itself had plenty of player storylines. The Bulls’ goal in the 84th was a hectic one credited to no less than three people. The Lewis Morgan corner eventually found Aaron Long who redirected it toward the net. Second half substitute Tom Barlow and Columbus goalkeeper Eloy Room both could have touched it but the ball found the back of the net. Officially, it’s credited to Barlow right now but it probably is an own goal.

Crisitian Casseras Jr. made his return to the lineup and the field as a second half substitute. With Drew Yearwood having an off game, the lack of an attacking center midfielder was evident in the first half. The Venezuelan National Team player’s entrance quickly increased the offensive intensity and made the second half more back and forth.

More still, ahead of the game three RBNY players were called up for international duty. Long, the only one heading to the U.S. Men’s National Team for the final round of World Cup Qualifying, was the only player of the trio to make it on the field. The team captain played the full match while Caden Clark and Daniel Edelman, both of whom received call ups to the U.S. Under-20 National Team didn’t make it off the bench.

However, the biggest name against the Crew was none of these nor the debuting Ashley Fletcher. Instead, defender John Tolkin stole the spotlight. In Gerhard Struber’s 5-4-1 formation, which almost resembled a 3-4-3 at times, Tolkin broke rank and bled into almost every facet of the game. He played just left of the goal post before jumping back and playing man-to-man defense. This was despite being listed as a defender on the official lineup given to the media.

It began early. New York’s pension to start games with a burst of offense returned on Sunday. The team got a handful of looks in the box early in the afternoon. In the sixth minute, the team began an attack just past midfield. Tolkin looked open on the left side with grass in front of him but the midfielder instead passed right to Lewis Morgan and a waiting Patryk Klimala. Klimala’s eventual cross into the box fell away from Tolkin who looked poised to put something on net.

Only two minutes later this came up again. Another cross from the right to the left toward the defender hit the mark this time. The Chatham Borough, New Jersey native headed the ball back toward center where Omir Fernandez was unable to come down with it while under pressure.

In a three minute span within the first ten minutes Tolkin was being used as an offensive weapon. Almost akin to the role Kyle Duncan played the past three years before his departure last offseason. To that effect, when the team’s surge slowed down his work continued across the field. A long cross in the 22nd minute was broken up and intercepted by Columbus’ Lucas Zelarayán. After initially falling to his feet and with the midfielder having open grass in front of him on the right side, Tolkin raced up and impeccably slid to take the ball away without committing a foul.

This was only one of the handful of great defensive moves the 19 year-old made. But, truthfully, it was the best one of the game.

As the game progressed, Tolkin continued to look good but it did slow. Speaking to the media after the match Struber explained that in the first half his team had more control in the first half, but more back and forth intensity in the final 45 minutes.

“In the first half I thought we had good shape but not so much the intensity that we need,” Struber said. “Columbus is a team with a high quality and we need every single player at their personal limit in these games.”

While Tolkin started the second half with a shot that sailed over the crossbar, for the most part he didn’t stand out as much. That could be because as New York played more intently, Columbus started to get more chances on goal. The visitors had multiple near open looks on the net that were missed. Forward Gyasi Zardes had a shocking miss on a breakaway in the 65th minute that was miss-kicked wide. He followed that up with another wide look ten minutes later. Carlos Cornel seemingly saved the game for his team in the 78th when former RBNY player Derrick Etienne Jr. broke away. The keeper saved the one-on-one and the attempted rebound shot from right of the net went wide.

But in truth it almost feels like Tolkin was also hampered by the faster play. While New York’s best chances of the game came from set-pieces and long plays, the slower buildup benefitted the more versatile defender. He was able to get around opposition that marked him before moving back and cover his own area. Once things sped up, helped by fresh feet in the midfield, the game moved away from him.

But still his impact on the game was undoubtable. And really, was it any surprise considering how this man dresses whenever a camera catches him? Tolkin is, again, only 19 and has a chance to really develop into something more this season. He’ll have more chances to train with the team during the international break. The team returns to the MLS schedule on April 2 on the road against the New England Revolution.

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