Tomorrow evening, top-flight soccer will return to Belgium with the Pro League getting underway in Liege, where Standard will welcome the Belgian Cup holders KAA Gent to the Stade Maurice Defrasne.
This will be a very interesting season of Belgium football from an American perspective based on the fact that there will be more Yanks playing “the beautiful game” in the kingdom than any time before. Though most are in the top flight, we do have a couple guys in the lower leagues as well.
So it’s time for a breakdown of the players and their teams.
Royal Antwerp (Sam Vines)
Antwerp is Belgium’s oldest club, having been the first team to register with the newly formed Royal Belgian Football Association way back in 1880. The Great Old, as they are known by their loyal fans, are four-time league champions but unfortunately that last title came way back in 1957. They did win the Belgian Cup, however, just two seasons ago.
They are coached by former Dutch international, Mark van Bommel. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich midfielder signed on at the end of May, making this his first season coaching in the Pro League.
American defender Sam Vines joined the Flemish team in 2021 from the Colorado Rapids and made just 24 appearances over the two year period. The defender will have to be very impressive in order to force his way into van Bommel’s starting 11 as the team will look to improve on their fourth-place finish of last season, that earned them a Europa Conference League playoff place.
Vines also has the World Cup to think about, but to be fair, this one has perhaps come too early for the 23 year-old Colorado native, although he has eight caps and a CONCACAF Gold Cup title to his name.
Antwerp will get their season underway on Sunday afternoon when they make the short 15-mile trip down the E19 highway to take on KV Mechelen.
KV Mechelen (Jorge Hernandez)
Koninklijke Voetbalclub Mechelen, or mercifully just KVM for short, is another Pro League team based in the northern Dutch speaking part of Belgium known as Flanders. Actually 14 of the 18 league teams in the top division are in that part of the country, leaving just Charleroi, Standard Liege, Seraing and Eupen in Wallonia, or the French speaking part of the country. Eupen is technically in the German speaking part but still falls under Wallonia.
The Kakkers have been around since 1904 and are four-time Belgian Champions, with the last one coming in 1989. The club went through a rough patch when in 2018 they were relegated after 11 straight top-flight seasons.
The following season, however, they did win the league and gain promotion, as well as winning the Belgian Cup. There were then accusations of match fixing and although they were allowed to maintain their Division 1 status, they were banned from both the Europa League and the Belgian Cup competitions.
Last season Mechelen finished in eighth place, which obviously was not good enough with the team’s hierarchy, so they brought in Dutch coach, Danny Buijs who will be under pressure to move the team up the league standings this season.
This summer they signed their first ever American in Jorge Hernandez. The Californian, who is eligible to play for the USA and Mexico, signed a contract that will keep him with the team until at least June 2024.
The midfielder is a product of the LA Galaxy youth system. He played 86 times, scoring 18 goals for LA Galaxy II before moving on to FC Chornomorets Odesa where he never kicked a competitive ball for the Ukrainian team for reasons beyond his control.
As mentioned above, KVM will open up at home against Sam Vines and Royal Antwerp.
Club Brugge (Owen Otasowie)
Over the past few years champions Club Brugge, the 130 year-old club that three-peated last season, has been unstoppable in the league. They’ll be led by new coach, former Belgian international Carl Hoefkens, who just took over the reins after working his way up the Club coaching ladder.
Club have automatically qualified for the Champions League group stages by virtue of their league title and, the versatile Owen Otasowie must be relishing the chance of playing both for Club and in Europe.
The New York-born, once-capped international had a rough first season with the Farmers and never played a competitive game. That has changed this season however. He has been in training and started in the Belgian Super Cup last week against Gent.
The season will get underway on Sunday afternoon in the Venice of the North when Mark McKenzie and Genk makes the trip west.
KRC Genk (Mark McKenzie)
Koninklijke Racing Club Genk plays their home games at the Luminus Arena in the Province of Limburg in the northeast corner of the country. Like many teams in Belgium, they’re the product of merging teams and have only been around since 1988 in their present form.
The Smurfs have also made a coaching change. The new gaffer is Wouter Vrancken, a former Belgian journeyman as a player who was in charge of Mechelen when they won their Belgian Cup in 2018. He left the Kakkers to take up his new job.
Mark McKenzie, who has eight USMNT caps and a CONCACAF Nations League winners medal, joined the team in January of last year on a four and a half year deal from Philadelphia Union, and won the Belgian Cup with his new team months later. The man from The Bronx will look to solidify his position in KRC’s back line and help the team push their way up the standings this coming season.
Genk heads to Brugge to take on Club for a Sunday matinee.
KVC Westerlo (Brian Reynolds, Griffin Yow)
After spending a few too many seasons in the second division, Koninklijke Voetbal Club Westerlo were crowned First Division B champions in May, and have returned to the top flight for the 2022-23 season. The club is owned by Turkish industrialist, Oktay Ercan, who made a fortune in the military industry specializing in military clothing. He is financed by, among others, the Qatari state.
The new boys who will play their home games at Het Kuipje (Little Tank) can boast two American players on their books.
Bryan Reynolds signed on with AS Roma in January 2021, and had limited opportunities in the rest of that season and the first half of the 2021-22 season under Jose Mourinho. He was sent on loan to Kortrijk in Belgium last season and had a very good half-season despite the Kerels missing out on the playoffs.
He has once again returned to Belgium for this coming season, trading in his red KVK uniform for Westerlo’s blue and yellow. He should slot easily into the starting 11 in his defensive position.
A surprise addition to the squad was Griffin Yow who came over from MLS side DC United. The 19 year-old Virginian scored thrice for the Black and Red in 32 appearances last season and will have to work hard if he plans to break into Westerlo’s first team. But the youngster is in a good place and will have opportunities this season.
Westerlo starts their new top flight adventure at home on Sunday night against Cercle Brugge, the team that finished tenth last season in the Pro League.
KV Oostende (Kyle Duncan)
Affectionately known as the Seasiders, Koninklijke Voetbalclub Oostende play their home games at the Diaz Arena, just a couple of blocks from the North Sea. The team was founded in 1904 as VG Oostende and in 1981 merged with AS Oostende to form the current KV Oostende. The team is American-owned and is one of seven European teams that Chien Lee has stakes in.
Kyle Duncan joined the Seasiders last November on a free transfer after spending four seasons in the New York Red Bull organization. Prior to that, he played just across the Belgian border with Valenciennes in Ligue 2, though he saw very little game time.
The 24 year-old New Yorker slotted into the first team soon after signing on and will look to be sure that he is called into the starting line-up every week as KVO tries to improve on last season’s abysmal 12th place finish where they were too close for comfort to the relegation zone for a time.
The right back’s head coach is a former defender himself, Yves Vanderhaeghe, who represented Belgium 48 times including during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Venderhaeghe was hired by the club this past February.
KVO will open up their campaign on Sunday in Brussels when they take on the new-look, Vincent Kompany-less Anderlecht.
SK Beveren (Tyler Wolff)
Though not in the top flight, second division Sportkring Beveren will get its season underway a week after the Pro League does. Beveren, who changed their name this summer from Waasland-Beveren, is another American-owned team.
Bolt Football Holdings, an American investment group headed by David Blitzer, took over the club in late 2020 but after two seasons have failed to get them back to the top of Belgian soccer. One of their acquisitions this summer was a young American.
Tyler Wolff had an excellent summer with the USYNT, winning the CONCACAF U-20 Championship before his parent club, Atlanta United loaned him out to the Belgian outfit. Wolff, who is only 19 years old, has the potential to shine with the Challenger Pro League team.
Beveren will start off the season on August 13th when they make the short trip to Antwerp to face Beerschot.
KVC Sint-Eloois-Winkel Sport (Maki Tall)
Playing in the town of the same name, Sint-Eloois-Winkel is a third-division team that takes part in the Belgian National Division 1. Having been around for 82 years, KVC has spent most of its existence in the provincial leagues but has climbed up to the third tier.
Washington DC-born Maki Tall, who has represented the USA U-20 and U-23 teams, arrived in Belgium in 2020 to play for Royal Francs Borains in an effort to re-build his career after bad luck with injuries set him back. With a lack of playing time last season, he was allowed to move on to his current club in West Flanders.
The league doesn’t kick off until midway through next month but when it does, on the 17th of August, Tall and his team will host KSK Heist.
With a man on the ground in Belgium heading to games on a weekly basis, Yanks Abroad will keep you informed on the adventures of our boys in the Belgian leagues with recaps, press box reports and exclusive interviews.