By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 26, 2023) US Soccer Players – The 2023-24 Belgian Pro League season kicks off on Friday, 55 days after the end of last season and the crowning of Royal Antwerp as league champion for the first time in 66 years. Last season in Belgium produced one of the most dramatic final days of any league in the world, thanks to the Pro League’s unique format for crowning a champion and some heroics on the part of Antwerp’s Toby Alderwield.
Antwerp needed an added-time goal from Alderwield to pull level with Genk on the last day of matches in the four-team group of clubs vying for the league’s championship. The single point earned from the draw was the margin of victory in the standings, winning Antwerp its first league title since 1957. Antwerp finished with 47 points in the playoff rounds, while both Genk and Union Saint-Gilloise finished with 46.
Royal Antwerp is the home of USMNT fullback Sam Vines, who made 15 consecutive at left back to begin the 2022-23 campaign before breaking his leg in training on November 4. Vines has already played a role in Antwerp earning its first trophy of the new season. He subbed on in the 60th minute in Antwerp’s Belgian Super Cup win over Mechelen on Sunday. Antwerp opens the season against Cercle Brugge on Sunday.
Royal Antwerp carries the pressure of being the defending champion into the new season. With coach Mark van Bommel beginning his second season and most of the squad returning, expectations are high that the club can win consecutive championships for the first time in its history. The competition for the title remains the same as last season, with Union Saint-Gilloise and KRC Genk once again expected to challenge.
Union Saint-Gilloise is on its third coach in three seasons but has the talent to push for a championship. Genk, the club Antwerp passed on the final day of last season, is home to USMNT center back Mark McKenzie. He was a central figure in Genk’s 2022-23 campaign and begins the new season as a regular in coach Wouter Vrancken’s lineups. The 23-year-old McKenzie finished seventh in the club in minutes played in the Belgian Pro League last season, starting 30 of 34 league contests.
Genk’s competitive season is already underway ahead of the first Belgian Pro League match of the year against newly promoted RWD Molenbeek on Saturday. Last year’s Belgian league runners-up played the first leg of a Champions League second-round qualifier against Servette of Switzerland on Tuesday in Geneva. That match ended 1-1 with Genk’s goal scored by Nigerian forward Toluwalase Arokodare. McKenzie started and played the full 90 minutes.
Belgium’s top division receives two spots in the UEFA Champions League, with one team entering in the second qualifying round (Genk) and the league champion (Antwerp) getting a spot in the last playoff round ahead of the group stage of the tournament.
The field trying to catch the presumed top three in Belgium includes Club Brugge, a team that won three straight titles before Antwerp’s championship last season. American midfielder Owen Otasowie is on the books at Club Brugge and will play under former New York City FC head coach Ronny Delia this season. Deila took over Club Brugge for the new campaign after coaching Standard Liege last season.
Standard Liege is home to American fullback Marlon Fossey. Standard finished sixth in the regular season in 2022-23 and qualified for the second playoff group with Cercle Brugge, Gent, and Westerlo, where they finished third. Fossey made 18 starts and played just shy of 1,700 minutes in his first season with the club after spending the first years of his career in England. The outlook for this season is promising with the arrival of Deila and a group of new players reinforcing the squad. Standard will open up the season away to Sint-Truiden on Sunday.
KVC Westerlo enters 2023-24 looking to build on a strong return season to the top flight last year. Westerlo earned promotion to Belgium’s first division as second division champions in 2021-22 and collected enough points during the regular season to compete in the second playoff group in 2022-23. Though the club finished the playoff portion of the year at the bottom of the four-team group, the season result was enough to create optimism that it can improve on its 7th-place regular season finish and again reach the playoff rounds.
Should Bryan Reynolds’s reported transfer go through, Westerlo is set to have two Americans on the books against this season. Griffin Yow did not make a first-team appearance in 2022-23 but appears ready to get his opportunity this season. The 20-year-old winger scored in a pre-season friendly against PAOK of Greece two weeks ago.
Reynolds was a fixture for Westerlo on loan from Roma last year. His 2,077 league minutes placed him fourth on the team as he locked down the right-back position at the club ahead of a summer with the USMNT at the Gold Cup. Overall, Reynolds made 34 appearances for Westerlo, scoring one goal and providing two assists. Westerlo opens the regular season on Saturday away to last year’s 15th-place finisher, Eupen.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Imago via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com