The All Star Game has come and gone and MLS has decided to throw a new wrinkle into the second half of the season: the implementation of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
While VAR has been used to varying degrees of effectiveness in the FIFA Confederations Cup and lower leagues, including the second-division United Soccer League in North America, MLS will be the first top-flight league in the world to implement the system. One can assume that it will also be making its way into the English Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga ahead of it’s FIFA World Cup debut next year.
So let’s start with the basics by looking at how VAR will be used in the league. Much like video review in, say Major League Baseball, the video assistant will be in a centralized booth, reviewing the match as it happens. In soccer, however, the assistant will alert the referee when a “clear” mistake has been made.
The official will then decide whether to heed the decision of the VAR (an odd grey area in my mind) and either go to the sideline and view the footage or accept the VAR’s decision at face value.
VAR cannot be used for every call, meaning we won’t have matched stop to review routine free kick situations, offsides or most yellow cards. Instead, the technology will only be applied to goals, penalty kick decisions, decisions on straight red cards and instances of mistaken identity. And if the game restarts after a controversial incident happens with no review, the referee cannot track back later and review it then.
As VAR czar Howard Webb notes in this good primer on how the system works, the moments immediately leading up to a goal or PK could also be reviewed. The “attacking phase of play” begins when the build up to the incident begins.
FInally, it’s worth noting that players and coaches who mime or goad the referee into reviewing a play will be cautioned for dissent.
The good news? Webb, formerly of the English Premier League, is as well-respected a referee as you will find in the footballing world. His leadership on the matter is likely to be a boon for the league as it undergoes what could be a rocky transition.
Purportedly, VAR is not meant to cause massive delays or break up the flow of play.
“It’s not meant to change the way the game is played. The goal is maximum benefit from minimum interference,” Webb said in a video describing the system.
I was actually in attendance at the first professional match to use VAR, a USL game between New York Red Bulls II and Orlando City B last year. And the modern incarnation of VAR is miles better than what existed even a year earlier as referees have had much more time to get used to the system. At the time the system was clunky and took almost 5 minutes to reach a verdict, a timeframe which has been sped up considerably.
Therefore I’m optimistic that we will be able to hit the ground running and have a system more like rugby, where the flow of the game is typically uninterrupted.
Yet, as mentioned above, the actual effectiveness of VAR remains to be seen. At the Confed Cup referees would often review footage clearly showing an infraction and opt not to follow it. This came to the forefront in the final, when the official opted not to send off Chile’s Gonzalo Jara for elbowing German forward Timo Werner.
This is not necessarily a problem with VAR itself but rather the human referees using it. Given the competency (or lack thereof) of PRO referees on a week-to-week basis, it seems laughable that the match officials will use the system to its full effect, at least at the beginning. Referees are being asked to swallow their pride and overrule a poor decision or oversight they potentially made minutes earlier. It stands to reason that, at least sometimes, that won’t happen, despite the best technology.
Are you excited to see MLS as a guinea pig for the future of the sport? Or do you think VAR is more trouble than it’s worth? Let us know in the comments below.