MICHAEL ADUBATO - Friday, March 29, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Belgian Pro League playoffs!
Although it's still the month of March; the Belgian regular season of the Pro League is done and dusted. It's very early to end a season its true, but soccer isn't yet over in this little country sandwiched between France to its south and the Netherlands to the north.
Back in the 2009-2010 seasons, the Belgian FA decided that they would cut the number of top-flight teams from 18 to just 16 because they felt that the teams at the lower end of the standings were not very strong and offered little competition to the top teams.
This idea led to the fact that with just 16 teams, the calendar only offered each team 30 league games, compared to other national leagues that consist of 20 teams and 38 league games. So, the solution turned out to be playoffs, as we do in the USA in all of our professional sports. The idea was not very well received by the fans at first but like all changes; they just take a matter of getting used to. That year Anderlecht won their 30th league title.
But let's be honest, playoffs aren't so much about finding the team to be crowned champions; it's mostly about the money. Instead of Anderlecht facing Club Brugge or Standard Liege just twice a season, they now get to go head to head on four occasions. These are the games that bring in the money and not games such as Anderlecht vs. Kortrijk or Club Brugge vs. Waasland-Beveren.
Let me explain how these playoffs work because they are nothing like MLS, NBA or NHL playoffs. Except for the team that finishes last and is automatically relegated, every team goes into the playoffs. In fact, not only does every team go into the playoffs but to make up the numbers, a few a teams from the second division also get to go into the playoffs.
The whole thing is broken down into three groups. The first group is called Playoff Group 1. This group consists of the teams that finished in the top six. Anderlecht scraped into this group but unfortunately our American midfielder Kenny Saief was shipped off on loan to FC Cincinnati back in the USA, so will not be taking part. Club Brugge also qualified for the top group, so at least we have a bit of American interest with Ethan Horvath between the pipes for Club.
The unusual thing about Playoff Group 1 is that the amount of points that were collected during the regular season still matter. Well, they half matter. The season ended with Genk on 63 points, Club Brugge on 56, Standard Liege on 53, Anderlecht on 51, Gent on 50 and Royal Antwerp on 49 points.
Going into the playoffs that should give Genk a seven-point lead over their nearest rival. It doesn't work like that however. The amount of points is cut in half. If the point total ended on an odd number, then it is rounded up and then cut in half. Starting this coming weekend, the standings will look like this:
Genk - 32
Club Brugge - 28
Standard - 27
Anderlecht - 26
Royal Antwerp - 25
So, the fact that Antwerp was 14 points behind first place Genk, meaning four wins and two more points, they're now only seven back. It makes the competition more exciting but is probably annoying for the team at the top. Genk's seven-point lead over Club is now only four, meaning they cannot really afford to slip up.
Each team in the group will play the other five teams both home and away, just like in the regular season. At the end of it all, the team with the most points will be crowned the Champions of Belgium and automatically qualify for a Champions League place in next seasons competition against the elite teams in Europe.
The other two groups are called Playoff Group 2A and Playoff Group 2B. These two groups are made up of the other teams minus the relegated team (Sporting Lokeren) and three from the second division or, as they call it in Belgium, First Division B. Like Playoff Group 1, these other two are also made up of six teams, leaving them another 10 games to play.
The first group is made up of Charleroi, St Truiden, Eupen and Oostende from the Pro League. Also in the group will be two lower league teams which are Beerschot-Wilrijk and Westerlo.
The next group does have some American interest because Brendan Hines-Ike and Kortrijk will be there. Their opponents will be their neighbors Mouscron, Zulte-Waregem, Cercle Brugge, Waasland-Beveren and second division side, Union St Gilles.
Now you already know that the top group will play for the championship, so what is the purpose of these other two groups who have no chance at winning the crown. Simply put, they are playing for a place in Europe. That's where the simplicity ends because the road to Europe is a long one and by no means guaranteed.
After these teams play 10 games in their respective groups, the group winners will go into more playoffs. The two group winners will face each other in just one game. The winner of this game will then face the fifth-place team from the championship group in just one game. The winner of that game gets to pat themselves on the back and then wait for the playoff draw for the summer Europa League.
So there you have what I hope is the simplified explanation of the Belgian playoff system. It's not ideal but the attendance at games certainly goes up at least for the first group when they get underway.
The playoffs begin this Friday night, March 29th when Royal Antwerp travels to Stade Maurice Defranse to take on Standard Liege. The last games will be played on May 19th. The other groups also start and end the same weekend.
As they get underway, Yanks Abroad would like to wish Ethan Horvath the very best of luck as he and his team mates at Club Brugge hope to make it back to back titles. We also wish the best of luck to Brendan Hines-Ike as he and Kortrijk push for a place in Europe next season.