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MLS has officially entered the VAR era

Video Review is officially a part of MLS now. Will it be good or bad?

MLS: IFAB Workshop Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the MLS All-Star Game has come and gone, the season has entered the second half. This also means that the MLS has entered a new era: Video-Assisted Refereeing is officially installed into MLS matches and will be part of the rest of the season from here on out, including the MLS Playoffs and the MLS Cup.

The Video Assistant, as explained by Major League Soccer, adds a fifth referee to the crew, who has access to all the camera angles and replays that we get to see on TV. The VAR will be able to see these replays and alert the head official in four situations: goals (duh), penalty kicks, cases of mistaken identity, and straight red cards. Those are the plays that are reviewable under VAR.

Howard Webb, a former World Cup referee and the Professional Referee Organization’s (the oversight group for referees in the American pro soccer leagues) Manager of VAR, has done a great job of making this move as public as possible. Webb hosted a presentation for media members in July, which was live-streamed online as well (you can watch it below). Referees have had training camps dedicated to VAR. The MLS preseason had some VAR, as did some youth team and USL reserve side matches. If the MLS is one thing in this implementation of VAR, it is prepared. They have done their homework and all the parties involved have made sure that everyone is on the same page.

And yet, something feels off.

Maybe it is some of the yikes-worthy screw-ups that occurred in some U-23 Euro matches, such as one of Italy’s players being sent off despite video review showing he should not have been, or the official stepping aside in the Confederations Cup to look at a foul, which the commentators and the referee analyst said should be a red card, and coming back and sticking with a yellow. Maybe it is how the VAR is limited to only what are determined to be “obvious errors,“ and does not apply to something like someone getting called offside when he actually was not.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not what you would call a “purist.“ I love the sport, but I do want the call to be correct. That is why I like the system the NFL has. At the same time, I don’t like how in baseball we can spend five minutes looking at a replay of someone sliding, when we have seen he has been tagged out. I am in favor of VAR, but as it currently stands I think it will end up as somewhat of a mess.

Take away the fact that after each goal, the video referee will review the goal to confirm it, much like in the NFL. I believe we can all adjust to the 30-second period for the goal to be confirmed before we celebrate. Or, if the players are sure of the goal, they won’t have any reason not to celebrate. I’m not worried about the pace of play as much as others. I think some players will time-waste much more to try and get a review, and I think players will get in the faces of referees to argue or to ask to get a review, but I think referees can adjust to that and that there will be policies for those occasions.

First of all, and this is my biggest issue with VAR in its current form, the VAR counsel to the first official is only a suggestion. The review referee’s ruling is not final. Sometimes, the main official may not watch the replay, and the VAR tells him what he sees. Then, it is still up to the decision of the official on the pitch to make the call, despite what he may have just been told by someone who can see every camera angle in the building.

Picture this for me: Someone slides and runs his spikes into another player. The official issues a yellow card and a free kick, but gets the call from VAR. The commentators, audience and VAR all watch the replay and see that he slid maliciously, not even touching the ball, and had his spikes up. Everyone watching now knows that should be a red card. The VAR tells that to the official, who nods, runs back to the pitch, and says play on. The crowd then sees the replay after the decision is made. What is the point?

If we are going to use VAR, it should be for things that are black and white. Things that are definitive. Things you can look at and say, yes, he was offside. Yes, that was inside the box. Yes, the ball went over the line. We have goal line technology and I am all for that.

What we have in VAR now is not only just in the suggesting phase, but it also still depends on human decisions. Some would say this is good, as it keeps the officials involved in the game and keeps the human element. The issue here is, if we are going to have replay, and invest all this time and money into educating and implementing, the calls should be right. If we look at the replay of a foul, the referee has to decide whether it is a penalty or not, and that decision could be different from the VAR and from the first official. That is a problem, because in that case, and it is the same as with the suggestion point I made earlier, we have all now seen the replay. What is the point of officially looking at it if you will still not get the call right?

Getting black and white calls right are easy with VAR. The problem is the subjectivity that VAR is trying to solve is just being extended to another person, and possibly opening up more scrutiny for the officials if they see a replay and do not change a call.

By this same principle, we will be in a situation at the end of the season where we say, “if VAR applied to X, then this would have been different.“ In addition, since this is being instituted halfway through the season, this may have a huge impact on some squads. Some teams have more games left to play, and so have more of a chance to have VAR give or take away from them. Some teams have already had occasions where they could have used VAR, but they were unlucky enough that VAR was only going into effect at the half mark. Just ask Mike Petke.

I understand what the MLS have done to try and make this work. I believe it is a step in the right direction. These guys have been training for months and developing the rules and procedures for over a year. They are not unprepared: the reason this is happening now instead of earlier is to give themselves time to work out the kinks. There will be bumps in the road, but if it leads to the team who deserves to win actually winning because a missed call was made correct, I think that’s the point.

The problem, too, is if this takes the story away from the games themselves, if and when there is a VAR mistake, and amplifies the criticism on the refs. We already see when an official becomes the story. Imagine when he is told in the middle of the match that he is wrong after looking at replay, and the call is still wrong. It’s going to happen at least once.

I am a believer, despite all of the possible issues, in VAR. I believe in the right call. I just believe that the subjectivity is still there to a point that despite looking at the replay, we will still be discussing the human error in spite of VAR. So take the video out of the decisions where it will be different for each person anyway, and make it only black and white decisions, like goal line.

Or, make the system similar to that of the NFL or Little League Baseball.

In the NFL, you get two challenges. You don’t like a call? You throw your flag before the next play, you get it reviewed, and you get a decision. If you get both right, you get one more. In Little League Baseball, you can keep challenging until you get one wrong, but then you’re done, so there is incentive to only challenge for a good reason.

I like the challenge system more than I like the VAR counseling system, at least right now. I also like that in the NFL, booth reviews are final. They aren’t suggestions. You looked at the replay. There is no reason to get the call wrong.

And yet, sometimes, they still do. And they will.

MLS is the first high-profile league to institute VAR, as the Bundesliga and Serie A will start using it this season. FIFA will use VAR in the World Cup next summer, and then the The International Football Association Board will make a final decision on whether to put it in the Laws of the Game. Only time will tell what adjustments are made and how the game adapts to each video review. Let’s see how this first step goes.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!