Ryan Nelsen has repeatedly said that MLS contenders fly high because of their depth outside the starting 11.
And again this weekend, the Toronto FC manager will see just how well his team does when it comes to depth of talent.
Nelsen faces a gaping hole in his lineup — without the heart of its defence as well as star striker Jermain Defoe and possibly midfielder Jonathan Osorio — for Saturday’s game in Columbus against the unbeaten Crew.
Captain Steven Caldwell is suspended while fellow centre back Doneil Henry has been sidelined by a twisted knee suffered in last weekend’s 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake City.
Defoe, who has all three of Toronto’s goals this season, strained his left hamstring last week and was substituted in the 61st minute.
“Not a major thing but definitely unavailable this weekend,” Nelsen said earlier in the week.
Osorio, who missed last week’s game with a hamstring injury, “probably won’t make it as well,” Nelsen said after practice Friday.
It looks like rookie Nick Hagglund, a 21-year-old Cincinnati native, will start at centre back Saturday. He impressed during the pre-season when he was pressed into emergency action at right fullback due to injuries elsewhere on the roster.
Gale Agbossoumonde, Bradley Orr and Ryan Richter can also play in the centre of defence.
Left fullback Justin Morrow has also played at centre back but a hip injury to backup fullback Ashtone Morgan has taken away some of Nelsen’s flexibility at the back.
Canadian Kyle Bekker may step in for Osorio in central midfield alongside American international Michael Bradley.
“It’s a really great opportunity, I think, for guys to get an opportunity,” said Nelsen. “If they take it and they do well, then possession (of the starting job) is nine-tenths of the law.”
Nelsen did not say who would wear the captain’s armband in Caldwell’s absence but it will likely be Bradley, coming off an impressive showing in Wednesday’s 2-2 tie in Glendale, Ariz., between the U.S. and Mexico. Bradley scored one goal and set up another.
Toronto and the Columbus Crew are both off to their best starts in MLS history. But Columbus (3-0-0) is unbeaten while Toronto (2-1-0) is coming off a loss and is hurting.
Caldwell was suspended for one game and fined an undisclosed amount by the league’s disciplinary committee for a studs-up tackle on Real Salt Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy last week. The Toronto skipper was yellow-carded on the play.
“Very disappointed with my 1 match ban,” Caldwell said via Twitter. “Never tackled to hurt someone in my life. Sorry I won’t be out there Saturday to help the lads.”
Toronto will get Brazilian midfielder Jackson back from a one-game suspension for an elbow thrown off the ball in the win over D.C. United. And Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar has recovered from a knock to the knee from a goalmouth collision in Salt Lake.
Toronto will have to watch Argentine attacker Federico Higuain, who has three goals (two from the penalty spot) and has been involved in five of the Crew’s seven goals this season.
Columbus showed its resilience last week in Seattle when it won 2-1 on a 94th-minute goal by Justin Meram — with an assist from Higuain — that snapped the Sounders’ 51-match unbeaten run when they score the first goal.
Toronto, meanwhile, got a reality check in Salt Lake City after opening the season with victories over Seattle and D.C. United.
Nelsen says he is not surprised by Columbus’ fast start out of the gate.
“Not at all. A lot of their players are good MLS players that have been around. Gregg (Berhalter) is a really good coach and he’s got them going really good ... There hasn’t been a hell of a lot of turnover there, especially in the main positions. He’s done really well.”
Berhalter took over as the Crew’s seventh head coach — and first sporting director — last November after two seasons at the helm of Swedish club Hammarby IF.
As a player, the defender spent 18 seasons in the Netherlands, England, Germany and the U.S., winning 44 caps for the American national team.
Toronto has New Zealand midfielder Tim Payne, currently on Blackburn’s books, in camp on trial.
NOTES — The Crew have lost to Toronto FC just twice in 19 meetings all-time and lead the Trillium Cup rivalry (10-2-7). Columbus is 7-1-2 against Toronto at home. Toronto’s 2-1 home win over the Crew last July was the first since a 4-2 victory in September 2011 in Columbus, which ended a 12-game TFC winless run against Columbus ... Crew defensive midfielder Tony Tchani played 12 games for Toronto in 2011 before being traded to Columbus for Andy Iro and Leandre Griffit.