HARRISON - When John Michael Tolkin came back to class at Chatham High School after being absent for two weeks, he was expecting questions — or at least a few raised eyebrows. Instead, Tolkin, a 17-year-old senior, just went about his day like any other high school student.
He took the day off again Thursday, and admitted he hasn't been in school very often since signing a contract with the New York Red Bulls. Instead, Tolkin spends his days in nearby Hanover Township at the Major League Soccer team's training facility. His two-week break from school was for preseason training in Florida and Arizona.
Tolkin is the youngest member of the Red Bulls, which rebuilt around young players out of their youth system. He is one of five "homegrown" players, who grew up wearing the Red Bulls' jersey — and five guys from New Jersey. Not all the Jersey players are designated homegrown, though all spent at least some part of their soccer careers with the club before signing pro contracts.
Tolkin recalled being a ball boy at Red Bull Arena, passing the ball in to midfielders Sean Davis, Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl, and goalkeeper Ryan Meara.
"It still doesn't feel real but it's happening," said Tolkin, a defender who was on the Red Bulls' USL affiliate last year.
"Last preseason was a beginning. I was getting used to everything. I was learning things from all the guys. Even though I'm younger, I have experience from last year."
The Red Bulls open the season at home Sunday against FC Cincinnati, a second-year team in turmoil after the resignation of head coach Ron Jans amidst a MLS investigation into his use of racial slurs in the locker room.
This was the Red Bulls' first full preseason in four years, since they were not participating in the CONCACAF Champions League. With only four of the first 12 matches at Red Bull Arena, they'll likely need all that extra bonding time.
Head coach Chris Armas hopes the travel will be an advantage, allowing the up-tempo, high-pressure squad to focus more on defense.
"Wherever there's a competition, I'm in on it. I want to win," said Armas, who is starting his third season at the helm.
"We have a goal. It's clear. MLS Cup, that's our goal. ... We talk about getting one percent better every day. The guys can relate to that. They really have, whether it's staying after for a little extra work, a little bit of video. It's an energy snowball that's getting bigger. We step on the field, we want to win."
Listen to new Red Bulls captain Sean Davis, then scroll down for the rest of the story.
Sean Davis, a 27-year-old midfielder from Holmdel, was named captain of the New York Red Bulls on Thursday. Morristown Daily Record
The whole Red Bull New York organization, from the first team down to the youngest academy squad, is trying to follow the same style. The idea is to develop players from within, and keep them homegrown. It's cheaper under MLS rules, and probably easier in the long run.
"There's a little bit of bite to New Jersey players," said striker Brian White, a 24-year-old from Flemington. "They want to play hard and to fight for everything, and they want to win. We're based in New Jersey. It's important we represent for that state."
Davis found out Thursday morning that he'd been named captain, which he called "a dream come true." Armas noted Davis will be the team's first homegrown captain.
Davis, a 27-year-old from Holmdel who has four goals and 18 assists in five seasons with the first team, had been part of the Red Bulls' leadership council. One of the first things Davis did was ask his teammates for help, reassuring he'd continue to build consensus.
"They'll run through the wall for him the way he runs through the wall every single day for all of us," Armas said. "He's a guy who commits every day the way we expect. He leads most comfortably by example, but his voice is growing."
Midfielders Jared Stroud and Chris Lema came up together with Red Bulls II over the past two seasons, and signed first-team contracts on Jan. 7. Stroud, a Delbarton and Colgate alumnus, is the first Red Bulls II player with 20 goals and 20 assists in his career. Lema lived two blocks from Red Bull Arena in Harrison until the family moved to Ridgefield when he was 6. He's been part of the youth system since he was 13 years old, and was a MetroStars fan before the ownership — and team name — change.
"You never know, right?" said Lema, 23, who expects a large cheering section. "You hope one day this is where it will lead."