When Union rookie midfielder Eric Bird checked in late to the Harrisburg City Islanders game on Saturday night, the hometown announcers weren't sure who he was and the official box score for USL listed him only with the number 23.
Given the decline in players being loaned to the Union's USL affiliate this season, these oversights are perhaps understandable. After all, Bird was wearing Antoine Hoppenot's jersey, which has made more appearances on other players than it has on Hoppenot this season.
The last appearance for Hoppenot's jersey was late in Harrisburg's May 16 home game against Charlotte when backup goalkeeper Ciaran Nugent subbed in for an injured Jose Barril. USL allows five substitutes in a game and a City Islanders team without any Union loanees had just five players in reserve. Nugent was the only player left on the bench.
Bird, who was making his second appearance for Harrisburg and his first in USL play on Saturday, was the only Union player available in Saturday's game, which ended on a sour note for the visitors when Pittsburgh Riverhounds scored three extra-time goals to win 6-5.
The rookie midfielder's 26 minutes have been the only minutes played by a Union loanee in the last four City Islanders games, which includes two U.S. Open Cup matches. Jimmy McLaughlin, Dzenan Catic and Raymond Lee were among 17 players available for Harrisburg in their game against the New York Red Bulls on May 9. Lee, the rookie defender, did not play in his only loan stint so far this season.
McLaughlin, Catic, Zach Pfeffer (who played two matches while suspended in MLS), Hoppenot and Richie Marquez have had a grand total of 10 starts, 13 appearances and 872 minutes in USL play.
That doesn't seem like much, but if you look around the league at the 12 MLS teams with USL affiliates, the Union are loaning players more frequently than five other teams combined. San Jose Earthquakes haven't loaned a single player to Sacramento Republic FC this season and Sporting Kansas City, New York City FC, FC Dallas and Orlando City have only used the loan process sparingly.
DC United's loaned players have the most minutes with 2045 and 22 games at Richmond Kickers, more than double that of the Union. The Rapids (Charlotte Independence), New England Revolution (Richmond Kickers), Houston Dynamo (Charleston Battery), Chicago Fire (St. Louis FC) and Columbus Crew (Austin Aztex) also have more minutes loaned than the Union.
Injuries have played a part in that.
Bird only recently became available and Catic was loaned to Carolina Railhawks in NASL in exchange for Carolina's loaned goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre.
Through eight league games, Union loanees have totaled 14 games and 896 minutes at a clip of 112 minutes per Harrisburg game. Last season, McLaughlin, Cristhian Hernandez, Pedro Ribeiro, Richie Marquez, Aaron Wheeler, Hoppenot, Leo Fernandes and Pfeffer played 97 games and 6455 minutes. Divided by Harrisburg's 31 games played, that averages out to 208 minutes played by Union players per game.
That means, the Union is using Harrisburg roughly half as much as they were a season ago, which while being based on various circumstances might be a signal to Harrisburg to not count on plugging holes in their roster quite like they have before.