By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 6, 2023) US Soccer Players – In England, Manchester City just lifted its third straight Premier League trophy and its fifth in the last six seasons. In Germany, a slip by Borussia Dortmund on the final day ensured the start of a second decade of Bayern Munich dominance. The Bavarian giant’s run of titles stands at eleven. In Spain, Barcelona triumphed for the fifth time in the last ten years, swapping places with ancient rival Real Madrid atop the La Liga table. Those two teams have combined to win eight of the last ten titles.
In Belgium, the title didn’t go to a usual suspect. A dramatic ending to the season instead delivered a surprising champion.
The Belgian Pro League takes a unique approach to crowning a champion that culminated on Saturday with Royal Antwerp winning a title. The club hadn’t claimed the championship in Belgium in 65 years. Antwerp’s title prevented Club Brugge, winners of five of the last seven titles, from consolidating its position as the country’s dominant team.
After a round-robin season between its 18 clubs, the Belgian Pro Leagues splits off teams for what it calls “playoffs,” though they differ from what American sports fans would expect from an end-of-season event under that name. The playoffs in Belgium involve multiple “mini-leagues” with one used to determine a champion and another used to award the league’s place in the UEFA Europa League.
The top eight teams play a six-game schedule for either the league’s championship trophy or a chance to reach a European competition. The points clubs earned during the first portion of the league season are halved and rounded up for the playoffs. The clubs in each group then play each other twice to determine the final standings.
For the 2022-23 season, the championship group included Royal Antwerp, Genk, Union Saint-Gilloise, and Club Brugge. The group playing for Europa League qualification involved Gent, Cercle Brugge, Standard Liege, and Westerlo.
Belgium’s format provides an advantage to the season’s top regular season team without making the champion a foregone conclusion. The second playoff group allows a second tier of teams to play competitive matches at the end of the season with the dream of a championship long gone. The creative approach has some drawbacks, but it also makes possible dramatic heights like those the Pro League experienced this season.
Heading into the playoffs, Antwerp was third in the table, behind Genk and Union Saint-Gilloise. American fullback Sam Vines played a significant role in Antwerp’s season, starting the first 15 games of the regular season before a broken tibia ended his campaign in November.
Antwerp began the season with a nine-game winning streak and charged out to an early lead in the standings. Their chief competition for the pole position going into the playoffs was Genk, home of USMNT center back Mark McKenzie. By the season’s end, it was Genk that had pulled ahead, tied with Union Saint-Gilloise with 75 points to Antwerp’s 72.
McKenzie came into his own in Belgium in 2022-23, collecting 30 starts during the regular season before starting every match of the playoffs. He added to his excellent defensive work with goals at the end of the season. The former Philadelphia Union defender scored on the final day of the regular season to help his club secure a draw against Charleroi, then scored in three of Genk’s first four playoff matches.
Despite finishing a distant fourth over 34 games in the regular season, Club Brugge, where defensive midfielder Owen Otasowie made one appearance this season, still had a chance at another title when the playoffs began. By the time the last matchday arrived, Club Brugge was mathematically eliminated.
The other three teams in the championship group still had a chance at the title. All three would be in first place before the day ended. At halftime of two simultaneously-played matches, Genk held first through a 1-0 lead against Antwerp. A goal early in the second-half of Union Saint-Gilloise’s match with Club Brugge put Union ahead just before the hour mark. Antwerp scored to give itself hope.
A second Genk goal with 75 minutes played pushed them into second, but still behind Union. Union then conceded to Club Brugge, lifting Genk into first. Another Club Brugge goal in added time brought an end to Union’s chances and left the title to be decided in the other match.
Toby Alderweild scored the title-winning goal for Antwerp a minute later. Vines is now a champion of Belgium, with the club qualifying for the Champions League playoff round. Genk and McKenzie earned a spot in the Champions League second qualifying round.
Gent finished atop the other playoff group and will take Belgium’s second spot in the Europa League second qualifying round (the first spot went to the third-place finisher in the championship playoff group, Union Saint-Gilloise). The second playoff group lacked the drama of the championship group on the final day, though the chase for a place in Europe did feature a few American faces.
Defender Bryan Reynolds finished a breakthrough season with Westerlo by playing 90 minutes in a loss to Cercle Brugge. Reynolds, on loan from Roma, made 27 regular season appearances and featured in five of the six playoff matches in the Pro League. Former DC United product Griffin Yow, a 20-year-old in his first season in Europe, is also on the books at Westerlo. Yow didn’t make an appearance for the senior team this season. Westerlo finished the playoffs bottom of its group, tied with Standard Liege on 30 points.
Another player who merits mention among the breakout American performers in Belgium this season is winger Marlon Fossey. Fossey moved to Standard Liege ahead of the season after spending more than a decade in the Fulham system. Fossey played close to 1,700 minutes for Standard, making 18 starts out of 22 appearances.
Thanks in part to its structure, atypical for a European soccer league, the Belgian Pro League delivered drama and a surprising champion in 2022-23.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
More From Jason Davis:
- A goal down, LAFC looks to raise the Champions League trophy
- Previewing the 2022-23 season finales for USMNT players in La Liga, Ligue 1, and Serie A
- What the Premier League finale means for USMNT players at Fulham, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, and Leeds United
- Gio Reyna’s quality for Borussia Dortmund with a two-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga table
Photo by Roy K Miller – ISIPhotos.com