By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 16, 2022) US Soccer Players – While all of the biggest leagues in Europe will wait until after Christmas or the New Year to resume play, a few competitions are returning to action sooner. Scotland’s Premiership resumed yesterday and Belgium’s topflight will hit the field for league matches again on December 23. Ahead of that, they’ll play the seventh round of the Belgian Cup starting on Tuesday. We’re at the part of the tournament that mostly pits top-division teams against top-division teams. It’s a competitive warm-up for the resumption of the chase for a domestic title.
When last we left Belgium’s Pro League, KRC Genk had charged out to a significant lead at the top of the table. After a period chasing a Royal Antwerp side that won its first nine games, Genk jumped into first place in mid-October.
On the line for the best teams in Belgium is a berth in the group stages of next year’s UEFA Champions League for the title winner and a place in the qualification playoffs for the league’s second-place team via the playoff rounds played at the end of the season. Club Brugge, where American midfielder/defender Owen Otasowie is on the books, played in this year’s Champions League group stage and will face Benfica in the Round of 16 in February. Union Saint-Gillioise lost to Rangers in the third qualifying round and missed out on further Champions League participation.
Union moved into the Europa League and advanced into the Round of 16 of that competition as a group winner. The Belgian cup champion also gets a place in the Europa League qualification playoffs. Gent fell to Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus to miss this year’s Europa League group stage.
At the bottom end of the league, the specter of relegation looms large. Now at 18 teams due to suspending relegation during COVID-19, the league will shrink to its previous size of 16 for the 2023-24 campaign. That means that three teams, rather than the traditional single club and the second worst facing a relegation playoff, will drop automatically into the second division.
Genk’s quest to win its fifth league title and secure a Champions League spot in the process is built on having both the best attack and the best defense in the league. The club is averaging 2.64 goals per game and has conceded less than a goal per game through 17 matches.
American defender Mark McKenzie is a significant part of that league-best defensive record. McKenzie made 14 appearances before the World Cup pause, all starts, and ranks among the best center backs in Belgium for passing percentage and aerials won per 90 minutes.
Genk picks up its cup challenge with the club it beat in the league just before the World Cup break, RSC Anderlecht. Anderlecht is Belgium’s traditional power but started slowly in 2022-23. The club where Sacha Klejstan played five seasons and won three titles currently sits 11th in the league. Genk downed Anderlecht 2-0 on November 13 away at Anderlecht and will host the Brussels-area club in Genk on December 21.
The league season picks up for Genk a day after Christmas when the league leader goes to 17th-place Kortrijk. With a single loss on its record so far this season, Genk will be heavy favorites to add three more points to its first-place total.
Royal Antwerp couldn’t keep its perfect record going, but the club remains in the hunt for both the league title and the cup. American fullback Sam Vines started 15 games during the opening stanza of the season but will miss the next 2-3 months recovering from a broken tibia suffered in early November.
Vines’s work on the left side of Antwerp’s backline earned him World Cup consideration before the injury and suggests he has a bright future ahead for both club and country. Antwerp will be anxious to get him back in the lineup to help with the championship push.
Royal Antwerp proudly sports the number “1” on its badge in recognition of its status as the first club registered with the Royal Belgian Football Association in 1898. Despite that history, the club has only four first-division championships, the last coming in 1956-57. Antwerp returns to play Wednesday in the Belgian Cup against Standard Liege and will resume league play against Westerlo on December 27.
Expected in the Westerlo lineup that day will be American right back Bryan Reynolds, a player whose path from FC Dallas to Europe has landed him with two different Belgian teams. The Roma signing is on a full-season loan to Westerlo for 2022-23, but he spent the second half of last season on loan with Kortrijk.
The move to Westerlo wasn’t a guaranteed step up in the Belgian soccer hierarchy for Reynolds. Westerlo gained promotion as the champions of the second division in 2021-22, returning to the first division for the first time since 2017. Meanwhile, Kortrijk held onto its topflight status by finishing 13th.
But Westerlo’s form ahead of the World Cup break, with Reynolds a key part, suggests the club could not only avoid relegation back to the second division but could be competing for a place in Europe at the season’s climax.
Belgium’s system crowns a champion and therefore hands out a Champions League group stage berth based on a final schedule of games between the top four clubs at the end of a 34-game regular season. Teams outside of the top four play in a separate playoff group, with a chance to move on to a playoff for a spot in the Europa Conference League on the line.
Reynolds and Westerlo are aiming for more, of course. A spot in the Championship playoffs (Playoffs I) would be a dream. For a host of clubs, including Vines’s Royal Antwerp, Otasowie’s Club Brugge, and McKenzie’s 1st-place Genk, the goal is simple: (Re)start fast fresh from the long World Cup break and set up a run for the title in 2023.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Cover Images via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com