By Neel Shelat.
As is often the case, March proved to be a time of transition in the world of football. The winter leagues are entering the home stretch of their seasons, while many summer league tables are starting to take shape after a few rounds of fixtures.
We have been trying to follow along with as many of these leagues as possible for WFi‘s Frantic Football Podcast. For our monthly column, we have narrowed our selection down to four major storylines from four leagues across four continents.
🇮🇩 Indonesia: PSM On The Verge Of First-Ever Liga 1 Title
According to the original schedule, the Liga 1 season would have been done by this time. However, we still have a few fixtures left due to the two-month suspension of the league following the tragic events of the Kanjuruhan Stadium disaster in October 2022.
That marred what otherwise was a pretty exciting season in terms of on-pitch action. After the 11th round of fixtures, just two points separated the top six in the table! The title race has not remained so close at the end as it is as good as done now, but there still is a good story to tell.
The reason behind that is the fact that the champions-elect are PSM Makassar, who have never won a Liga 1 title in the past. That is the case in spite of the fact that they are the oldest club in the country, and are one of the historically most successful ones too.
They were founded in 1915 as Makassarche Voetbalbond, but were forcibly renamed during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies during the Second World War. They then went on to win a few national league titles in the 1950s and 1960s. Thereafter, though, the only major league title they subsequently lifted was in 2000.
That meant that PSM had never won the Indonesian top flight after it was fully professionalised in 2008. That is finally set to change, as PSM only need to pick up three points from three remaining league fixtures to secure the title at the time of writing.
🇲🇩 Moldova: Mind-Numbing New League Format
It is hard to tell what was going through the minds of the organisers as they were devising the new Moldovan Super Liga format, but ease of understanding was definitely not something they were concerned with. As it came into effect for the first time ever this month, we spent days investigating how it all works. This is the best explanation we have to offer:
The first phase of the league is straightforward. The eight top-flight teams play each other home and away, so after 14 rounds of fixtures, the phase ends. This is what the table looked like this season:
The top six qualify for the championship play-off, where they start from scratch as their previous points tallies are erased. They play each other home and away again in a regular league format, with the team that finishes first being crowned champions.
That in itself is a unique format, but wait till you hear about what becomes of the bottom two teams from the first phase.
They technically drop to the second tier (also called Liga 1) for the second phase of the season, where they play in a six-team promotion group. To understand where the other four teams of this group come from, you first need to understand how Liga 1’s first phase works.
The Moldovan second division has twelve teams, but they are divided into two groups of six during the first phase (Group A and Group B). They only play their matches within these groups, so after 10 rounds of fixtures in a regular league format, the top two from each group qualify for the aforementioned six-team promotion group.
Again, this group starts with all teams on zero points, and they play in a regular league format too. At the end of the ten rounds of fixtures, the side that finishes first wins direct promotion to the Super Liga for the subsequent season. The other five teams qualify for the promotion play-off quarter-finals.
That begs the question: where do the remaining three teams come from for these quarter-finals? The answer is the second group of the second phase of the second tier. What is that then?
Remember Groups A and B from the first phase? The top two from each of those went on to play in the aforementioned promotion group, but meanwhile, the remaining eight teams join to form the second group of the second phase. Starting on zero points in a regular league format again, the bottom two are relegated to the third tier at the end.
The other six get a shot at promotion to the top-flight. First plays sixth, second places fifth and third plays fourth to decide the remaining three contestants of the promotion play-off quarter-finals. Then, regular knockouts boil it down to one winner, who also qualify for the subsequent Super Liga season.
Still confused? If hearing this might help, listen to the podcast episode where we discussed this insane format.
🇺🇸 USA: New Boys St. Louis City Off To A Flyer
Over in the United States of America, the new MLS season is just five rounds old. Yet, we have already seen some history created.
The team responsible for it are Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield leaders St. Louis City, who became the first expansion side to win their first four matches in the league. By the way, they went on to win their fifth as well.
They are the only side in the league with an intact perfect record, which started with an 86th-minute winner in Austin during the season opener. Next up was their home debut, which attracted a capacity crowd at CITYPARK.
Just 😮! This is looking really good and once again, this is the sort of stadium everyone in MLS needs. #stlcitysc #AllForCITY pic.twitter.com/EhhNPombFc
— Manuel Veth (@ManuelVeth) March 5, 2023
The fans were not left disappointed at all, as they watched their team put three past Charlotte FC. That was followed by a comeback win over the Portland Timbers, after which came two convincing wins over the San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake.
It is impressive enough for a team assembled from scratch for this season to get off to such a great start, but what is quite interesting is that St. Louis City’s squad-building approach has been pretty unique for the league. Sporting director Lutz Pfannestiel has been quoted saying that he does not believe in Designated Players, as St. Louis City’s two DPs only qualified for that status due to their transfer fees and not wages.
Both of them have proven to be shrewd acquisitions, though. João Klauss has already scored five goals, while Eduard Löwen has been an instrumental presence in midfield and provided three assists. Of course, there is a long way to go yet, but those two could well power St Louis City to the playoffs in their debut season.
🇻🇪 Venezuela: Academia Puerto Cabello Launch Surprise Title Bid
Sticking to the theme of surprise league leaders with perfect records, we’ve got Academia Puerto Cabello in Venezuela. Much like St Louis City, they are a fairly young club too, although they could not drop into the top-flight as soon as they were born.
Academia Puerto Cabello’s history starts in 2011 when a football academy was established in the port city of Puerto Cabello in the state of Carabobo. Three years later, the senior team was founded. They started life in the third tier of Venezuelan football, winning promotion in their debut season.
There were so many doubters of Sanvicente ahead of this season, still are some. He has absolutely silenced them with this 7-0 start.
APC aren’t just playing well, they’re playing nearly perfectly. They didn’t even concede a goal in March. Academia Puerto Cabello mean business. https://t.co/cD5zh4EEBn
— Dominic José Bisogno (@DJBisogno) April 1, 2023
They were close to achieving back-to-back promotions and reaching the top-flight in 2015, but administrative issues meant that they had to forfeit the play-off final after failing to find a suitable stadium to play their home leg in. With that, their arrival in Liga FUTVE was delayed by a couple of years.
Since reaching the top-flight in 2018, Academia Puerto Cabello have never come close to challenging for the title. So, it is quite surprising that they find themselves seven points clear at the top of the table after seven rounds of fixtures this season. That margin does not mean much, though, as the Liga FUTVE title is decided at the end of a championship group, before which the four contestants’ points tallies are wiped out.
Stats courtesy of Transfermarkt and FotMob.