Four games into the MLS season, the Toronto FC training room is packed. And more worrying, it is filled with marquee talent.
Toronto (3-1-0) could be without as many as five starters for Saturday's visit by the Colorado Rapids (2-1-1) including two designated players whose combined pay this season is close to US$13 million.
England striker Jermain Defoe (hamstring) is out for the second straight week. American midfielder Michael Bradley missed another practice Friday, his body feeling the effects of games for both the U.S. and Toronto last week.
"We're giving him every single chance ... we'll make a decision (Saturday)," manager Ryan Nelsen said of his team's midfield general.
Centre back Doneil Henry (knee) will sit out a second straight game. Jonathan Osorio (hamstring) is "probably a no" for the third week in a row and fellow midfielder Alvaro Rey (hamstring) is "very very questionable."
Because of injuries and suspensions, Toronto has only five players who have started every game so far: goalkeeper Julio Cesar, defenders Mark Bloom and Justin Morrow and midfielders Bradley and Rey. And that number could be down to three after this weekend.
Defoe was sidelined by a hamstring injury at Spurs earlier this season. Nelsen has said the two injuries are not linked and repeated Friday that the England star was dealing with a mild strain.
Hamstrings are tricky things, especially for elite soccer players. Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke, for example, ran 12.2 kilometres in Wednesday's Champions League semifinal against Barcelona.
Toronto, which has used 19 players to date, has had to put the brakes on Defoe, who has wanted to resume training.
Nelsen, however, sees a bigger picture.
"The one thing that we don't want is obviously him coming back and getting re-injured. And so if we have to sacrifice an extra week, we have to sacrifice an extra week."
Nelsen said the team has been reviewing everything at its disposal — from heart rate to distance travelled in training — to see if things could be done differently.
The club is also learning the ins and outs of the bodies of new players like Defoe, he added.
The TFC manager says there are no alarm bells about the current spate of injuries. A challenging opening to the schedule and the long winter that has kept practices until this week to artificial turf under a bubble at the team training centre haven't helped.
Most top soccer pros would rather gargle cod liver oil than set foot on artificial turf.
Nelsen believes that this is just the kind of injury run that all clubs go through at some point.
"It happens at Chelsea, it happens at Man City, it happens at every single club. Hopefully we're just getting all of them done now."
Said captain Steven Caldwell: "It's disappointing that we've got a few injuries but a lot of them are nobody's fault."
In the case of Toronto, this is a squad that brought in at least seven new starters this season. Time has been needed on the training ground to get everyone on the same page.
You're damned if you, damned if you don't, Nelsen said of practice regimens.
"Because if you pull them out of training and just rest them, then they're not ready for the demands of a game. We're sitting with three wins because the guys are fit and organized. But we couldn't have done that if we had all wrapped them up in cotton wool."
Bradley presents an interesting case in point. Rested this week, he is probably the exception to the rule that starters need to practise.
If he doesn't start, speculation will grow that he is dealing with more than the variety of strains the club has pointed to.
The good news is the injuries have not slowed Toronto down so far. Missing Defoe, Osorio, Henry and the suspended Caldwell last week, it still managed to topple previously unbeaten Columbus away from home.
Also on the plus side, squad players like rookie defender Nick Hagglund and second-year midfielder Kyle Bekker have stepped up. And veteran Bradley Orr showed his moxie in smoothly shifting over to centre back.
Nelsen says his reserves have stepped up to the challenge during the current injury glut. But he is not about to say debate over his team's depth is over.
"I always got told that anybody can play one, two, three games at any level," he said. "But it's the ability to spit them out week in, week out ... that's the mark of what a really good player is."
Orr will likely partner Caldwell in central defence with Bekker deputizing for Osorio in midfield again. Dwayne De Rosario could start on the flank for Rey with Issey Nakajima-Farran who scored off the bench last week, possibly partnering Gilberto up front.
Jeremy Hall may get the nod if Bradley can't go.
The pitch at BMO Field, poor for the home opener thanks to the brutal winter, should be better Saturday although the players know it will take time to return to top condition.
"It's not going to be ideal," said Caldwell, who returns from his one-game suspension.
Colorado, under new head coach Pablo Mastroeni, has already defeated Portland and Vancouver this season and tied the New York Red Bulls. The lone loss was a 3-2 decision to defending champion Sporting Kansas City.
"They've got a really nice team that's been around together as well for a bit," said Nelsen.
"They're a team, for me, that has no real weaknesses. They're just a lovely, solid MLS team that's going to be very difficult."
Spanish midfielder Jose Mari — real name Jose Maria Martin Bejarano-Serrano — introduced himself last week with two goals against Vancouver. The first, a swerving left-footed rocket, was judged the league's goal of the week.