Video Review has been in effect in MLS since August, following last season’s All-Star break, and even with several months’ experience with the experimental program to assist referees, a consensus is building that the system has some major flaws.
While there wasn’t unanimity when the system colloquially known as “VAR” (which is in fact the referee manning the video booth in the stadium, helping the center referee) was rolled out, the sheer speed of the sport at this point in time and the fallability of humans led a substantial proportion to support Video Review, but many attitudes have changed in the meantime.
In addition to the NFL-like mounting importance of what seemed like a straightforward line at the time, “clear and obvious errors” would be scrutinized with Video Review becoming a phrase so debated it’s close to becoming meaningless, an overall lack of transparency has hindered the understanding surrounding the system, being tested in leagues around the world at this point and set to be used at the upcoming World Cup.
That latter point was a theme on both sides of Saturday’s 1-1 draw between Los Angeles Football Club and D.C. United. The game, refereed by Ismael Elfath, featured a first-half straight red card to Dejan Jakovic and two handball calls in the second half, one on Laurent Ciman and the other on Zoltan Stieber, both going through Video Review before being declined.
Of course, while the rest of the people watching the game were aware of Video Review happening around the respective handball calls, Elfath is not required to explain the official decision to anyone, leading to considerable confusion by all involved.
“It has to be clear what gets looked at again and what doesn’t,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said after the match. “Our game is a game of close calls. When VAR started, what they said is you only overturn something if it’s a clear error and yet what happens is now there are calls, the referee makes it and it’s not really a clear error. It’s a close call. And then they look at it again and [change their mind]. This is confusing. So, application, what gets looked at again, what doesn’t, the timing of the game.
“Honestly, if you took every moment for the league for the year, there are so many times you just aren’t sure what’s happening. The second half becomes a mix of confusing, controversial, and for me it takes away from the game.”
Bradley’s counterpart echoed the same sentiments.
“I think there is going to be games like this with the new system that in a lot of ways ruins the game,” D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen explained. “There is also going to be a lot of games where it makes sense, and this is part of the process. Today was a very choppy game, I’ve heard these weren’t penalties, and I’ve heard both were penalties. You have a referee making a judgment call, now you have someone in the booth making a judgment call, and on a handball, I don’t know what a hand-ball is anymore. Nobody in this room knows what a handball is anymore; I barely know what offside is at this point.
“It’s tough, and I think today was one of those days where it hurt the game.”
It wasn’t just managers railing against a result they found frustrating. Players agreed that the opaque nature of the VAR process is making things more confusing at times.
“It was a weird one with all the video review today, back and forth, and I think the league has to look at that to make it a little clearer to everybody what’s going on,” said D.C. United goalkeeper David Ousted.
The only person who was quoted on the night saying Video Review was something to deal with was LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller.
“There is a grey area of [the video assistant referee] that the players and the coaches typically don’t understand but it’s part of the game now so it’s something that we have to adapt to and get used to,” he said. “So, for us it’s become common place now that any questionable call, they’re going to go to VAR and that’s just something we have to deal with and get used to.”
Considering Video Review is officially still an experiment, will those who make the decisions about the laws of the game implement some kind of adjustment moving forward? Will referees start announcing decisions officially, at least to the sideline for the sake of understanding? Or will we continue to be twisted in knots about what “clear and obvious” means and wonder why a decision is upheld or overturned on Video Review?
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