Toronto FC coach Ryan Nelsen will have some serious lineup juggling to do on Saturday.
Already missing top scorer Jermain Defoe (hamstring strain) and captain Steven Caldwell (suspension), Nelsen on Friday confirmed TFC will also be without central defender Doneil Henry (twisted knee) and fullback Ashtone Morgan (hip) for Saturday’s road game versus the Columbus Crew.
Also, central midfielder Jonathan Osorio “probably won’t make it as well,” according to Nelsen. Osorio sat out last weekend’s 3-0 away loss to Real Salt Lake with a hamstring injury.
With so many key starters missing, this game will be a serious test of TFC’s roster depth which has recently come into question by media and fans. Nelsen said he was excited to see how the players drafted into the starting lineup for the first time this season will step up to the challenge.
“I’ve always said this league is won [on the strength of your bench players],” Nelsen told reporters after Friday’s practice.
“That depth, that’s what we have to get better at, and you get better at it with stability and consistency. Hopefully, these guys can [send me a message] that they can handle things in this league.”
Saturday Programming alert: Watch the Columbus Crew vs. Toronto FC live on Sportsnet 360. Coverage begins at 6pm ET/3 pm PT. | TV schedule
Star striker Defoe, 31, has scored all three of the Reds’ goals this season, but it can be argued that the losses of Caldwell and Henry—the club’s two starting central defenders—will hurt even more.
With Caldwell and Henry out, expect rookie Nick Hagglund to make his debut for the Reds on Saturday. Who will partner Hagglund, the 10th overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, in the centre of defence? Possibilities include Ryan Richter and Gale Agbossoumonde who, like Hagglund, have yet to get a single minute of action through the first three games of the season.
“They haven’t seen minutes but it’s the world we’re living in. Unfortunately, that’s how it’s fallen. It’s a great opportunity for these guys. If they take the opportunity and do well, then possession is nine tenths of the law,” Nelsen quipped.
Another possibility would be to shift Justin Morrow from left fullback into the middle, but with Morgan ruled out that seems unlikely. A more plausible solution would be to move veteran Bradley Orr from right fullback into the middle alongside Hagglund, and play Mark Bloom on the right side of defence.
Whatever the back four looks like, they’ll surely be tested against a Crew side that sports a perfect 3-0-0 record, and boasts one of the most dangerous attacking players in MLS in Federico Higuain. The Argentine forward has three goals and has been involved in five of Columbus’s seven goals this season.
It’ll be a big test for Hagglund, who grew up in Ohio and attended Xavier University in Cincinnati, and will have friends and family in attendance to watch his pro debut.
“It’s going to be fun to be back in Columbus. It’s where I got my first MLS experience playing for their summer team,” Hagglund said.
Caldwell has mentored Hagglund since pre-season, with the Scottish veteran taking the rookie under his wing and helping him adapt to the pace of the league.
If Osorio can’t play, Canadian Kyle Bekker will likely start next to Michael Bradley in central midfield.
Bradley scored one goal and set up another for the U.S. national team in friendly versus Mexico on Wednesday in Arizona. The midfielder flew back early to Toronto to make sure he was fully fit and rested for Saturday’s contest in Ohio.
“A good team doesn’t lose twice in a row. We understand last week wasn’t our best performance but we’ll find a way to respond,” Bradley said. “The best way to put a game like last week’s is to get back out onto the field.”
The other big question is who will replace Defoe up front alongside Brazilian Gilberto. Nelsen hinted that it could be Dwayne De Rosario or Andrew Wiedeman. He has other options too in newly signed Canadian international Issey Nakajima-Farran and Brazilian midfielder Jackson.
TFC will get Jackson back from a one-game suspension for Saturday’s game. He sat out last week’s match in Salt Lake after elbowing D.C. United’s Davy Arnaud in an off-the-ball incident the previous week. Goalkeeper and fellow Brazilian Julio Cesar has recovered from a minor knee problem and is expected to start against the Crew.
Toronto opened the season with a road win over the Seattle Sounders and a victory versus D.C. United in their home opener before losing in Utah.
NOTES: Midfielder Tim Payne, currently on the books at Blackburn in the English Championship, is on trial with TFC. Payne practiced with the Reds on Friday, and Nelsen said they will take a look at the New Zealand international over the next two weeks… Columbus leads the all-time series against Toronto with 10 wins and seven draws in 19 meetings. The Crew are 7-1-2 against TFC at home…
Soccer Central podcast: SPORTSNET.CA’s Soccer Central podcast, hosted by John Molinaro and James Sharman, takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues. To listen and subscribe to the podcast, CLICK HERE.