BELGIUM ENTERS PLAYOFF PHASE
Belgium's top division has now entered the highly unusual playoff phase to determine their league champion, bucking the tradition of other leagues on the European continent.
Being a fan of soccer around the world and having gone to games in at least 20 different countries; I could accept soccer playoffs in the USA (though barely) but it was a bigger surprise when the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA) decided to do the same.
It was inevitable, however; football associations are greedy entities and the Belgians are no different.
When once there were enough teams in the first and second divisions to have a proper season; meaning that each team played each other home and away, leaving the team with the most points the champions of their leagues - the number of teams has been reduced so much that this is no longer possible.
In 2016 the RBFA got so carried away with the restructure that the second division was left with just eight teams. The first division ended up with 16 teams. Oh, they're not called that anymore either but First Division A and First Division B. These 24 teams are the only professional teams in the country. Below them, however, are three amateur divisions with a total of 128 teams.
Since there are no Americans playing outside of First Division A, also known as the Pro League, I'm not going to bother with the others.
Of the 16 top flight teams, four of them have an American on their books. Midfielder Kenny Saief belongs to KAA Gent but is currently on loan with defending champions Anderlecht. Ethan Horvath, signed for Club Brugge in January 2017, quickly making himself the team's number one. Less than a year later he became a liability and is now considered to be Club's fourth keeper. He'll likely never take to the field for the Blue-Blacks again but stranger things have happened. Yank number three is Juan Pablo Torres, who signed with Sporting Lokeren on his 18th birthday last summer. Last but not least is Erik Palmer Brown. The young man signed for Manchester City earlier this year and was immediately loaned out to KV Kortrijk.
Of coure the whole idea behind the sport, any sport really, is to be the best. To get an automatic place in the next Champions League, the team has to be crowned Belgian Champions. This is the only guaranteed CL spot. The second-place team will go into playoffs with other UEFA teams in order to qualify. As for Europa League spots; well, that's another thing that needs explaining. But that will come later.
Now to the playoffs. As mentioned, there are 16 teams in the top division. Every team plays every other team home and away. For you mathematically challenged fans, that means everyone plays 30 games in the season. After the 30 games and a short break, the playoffs start. Now, this is where it gets tricky.
The first six teams will go into Playoff Group 1. Whatever total points these teams had at the end of the regular season will be cut in half. If the points were an odd number, they're automatically rounded up.
The first group started with Club Brugge leading the way with a pretty decent lead of 34 points, followed by Anderlecht on 28. In third is this year's surprise team, Sporting Charleroi with 26, followed by KAA Gent with 25. Bringing up the rear are both Genk and Standard Liege on 22 points each.
There are also two other playoff groups - Playoff Group 2A and 2B. These groups consist of those who did not make the top six, minus the last place team (Mechelen) whose season is over as they prepare to play in First Division B next season. Oh yeah, to make up the numbers so that there are also six teams in each of these groups, the three top teams from the division below are added. This time, however, all the teams start with a clean slate, meaning no points at all.
In 2A are OH Leuven, Lierse, Mouscron, Kortrijk, Waasland Beveren and Zulte Waregem. The other group has Beerschot Wilrijk, Sporting Lokeren, Oostende, Eupen, St Trond, and Antwerp. They also play each other home and away; another five games and the winners of those groups then play each other only once to determine the winner of Group 2.
At the end of all the playoffs with the winners going to the Champions League and the second, third and fourth place teams also going into playoff rounds for European places, the team that finishes in fifth has to take on the winners of Group 2. And of course, that team has the same fate as the teams that finished second, third and fourth; they get to go into some European playoffs.
So how do things play out for the Yanks abroad? Saief has a slight chance of winning the league with Anderlecht and making it into next season's Champions League. I say slightly because six points behind a tough Club team will be hard to make up. Their best chances will be when the two teams come face to face. After two games, however, Les Mauves have only three points, losing the opener to Gent. To make matters less dire, however, Gent just beat Club, so there remain six points between them with eight games left to play. I do predict that Horvath's Brugge boys will take the title.
Palmer Brown's Kortrijk just missed out on making the top group so they will be in contention for making it into the next round of playoffs. They destroyed Beveren 4-1 in their opening game with Palmer Brown coming off the bench late in the game. He didn't even make the bench in the next game against Mouscron however.
Torres' team has so far won and lost a game in their group. Unfortunately, Torres was nowhere to be found, not even making the bench. He is very young and if he doesn't get any more minutes this season, he could break into the team next season and even take part in the Europa League.
Although a small country, the Belgian league is very competitive and well respected in Europe. In the UEFA rankings, it comes in ninth place, far ahead of the northern leagues of Denmark (17), Sweden (22) and Norway (29) where many Americans have gotten their starts over in Europe.
So keep your eye on the Belgian Weekend Recaps to see how these Yanks Abroad get on and keep your fingers crossed that we see more Americans playing in next season's Champions League and Europa League.