Last Saturday’s match against Atlanta United FC was shaping up to be a great match. The Vancouver Whitecaps were undefeated, having beat Houston Dynamo the week previous, in Houston. They were now in Georgia to take on the high-powered Atlanta club, who lost in Houston on opening weekend, but dominated David Ousted’s new club D.C. United the week previous.
In addition to the match-up, the Whitecaps were going to again try the 3-CB formation, with MLS newcomers Jordon Mutch and Anthony Blondell getting their first starts as a Whitecaps; and Nicolas Mezquida getting his first start of the season.
The match started out interesting enough, with some good play from both teams. It was shaping up to be an exciting match. However, referee Ismail Elfath put a stop to that very quickly 10 minutes into the match, when he went to a Video Assisted Review (VAR) for an elbow by Kendall Waston. Despite it not being called on the field, little to no complaints from Atlanta players, and eight-minutes to review the call, Elfath came back with...a red card.
Shortly after this call, my partner asked how the match was going. I told them it was going alright, but that it didn’t matter, because the Whitecaps were going to lose. While Atlanta United had to be favored heading in to the match, the issued red card certainly made the next 80 minute a formality; especially given the PK issued in conjunction with the red card. Sure enough, the match would end in a 4-1 defeat for the Whitecaps, pushing their season record to two wins and one loss.
Could the Whitecaps have pulled out a victory in Atlanta? Possibly. Although it is worth noting that in our Guess the Starting XI and Final Score contest, I did predict a 3-1 Atlanta victory. However, whether the Caps would have won the match or not is not really the issue. A poor referee decision, ‘aided by VAR!’, decided a potentially exciting match almost from the outset. If you read our SB Nation Dirty South Soccer’s recap of the match, you will see a very important comment: “Atlanta outshot Vancouver 21-6 on the night. It was as boring as a 4-1 win can be.” I also enjoyed our colleague’s take on the incident. I will let you read their entire take, but will give you the heading they used: “VAR is joyless, frustrating, and it isn’t doing it’s job.” When your opponent, who benefited with a 4-1 victory, is looking at the call and match in such a negative manner, you know there is a MAJOR issue.
Last summer, VAR was introduced to allow for mistakes to be overturned. Obviously, people were frustrated when a referee’s (or linesman’s) incorrect call decided a match. The solution? Allow for VAR to be implemented to correct those situations. I felt that was a great decision. Referees are human and they make mistakes. I never had a problem with that. Make a big decision in a split-second, when you are 20 yards away from the play (because things happen so fast, not because they were intentionally out-of-position)? I did not see it as fans not having faith in referees. I also did not see it as ‘changing the game’. I saw it as using technology to improve the game and to make sure that they players and what ACTUALLY occurs on the field decide the match and not human error. For those arguing ‘human error is part of the game’, you are plain and simply wrong! Removing it does not ruin the game.
However, last Saturday, we saw what can go wrong with VAR. Some people complained that Elfath took too long to make a decision and that was evidence that it was not a ‘clear and obvious’ call. I disagree. I would rather a referee take eight minutes (or whatever) to look at every part of a call and get it correct; especially when it could decide the match. Did anyone really think that a 10-man Whitecaps were going to defeat Atlanta, in Atlanta, already down 1-0? Elfath had to know that he was potentially deciding the match in that moment. If the call is correct, I have no problem with him taking 10 minutes. Agree/Disagree?
The problem with Elfath’s decision is that he took a correct call and made it an incorrect one. Sadly, I had long been a supporter of Elfath, but looking back at his track record, this is not an anomaly, and I have been wrong in my support. His poor decisions have routinely decided the outcome of a match. How bad is it? In an anonymous poll of MLS players, when asked “who has been your toughest individual opponent in MLS?”, at least one player said “Ismail Elfath”. Joking or not (I suspect not), a referee should never come up in a poll like this, even once. If that is happening, you know there is a serious issue with this person. For what it is worth, Kendall Waston finished third behind Villa and Piatti in voting, with 5%.
Many people make jokes about how terrible PRO referees are and how MLS needs to improve this if they want to be taken seriously. While I am not as die hard of a voice in this fight as many others I know, it is incidents like this that provide so much support for the argument. It is one thing to make a mistake. We are all human. It is another thing to change something that was correct initially, into something incorrect, with the aid of time and many video replays. More importantly, it is another thing to do this continually. There is a major problem and it is not just Elfath. Sadly, I am not sure what the solution is and I don’t know that we will actually be able to come to a solution any time soon given how ingrained the current regime (can I call PRO and their referees that?) is within North American soccer.
Sadly, coupled with the overturning is the far too realistic fear that by ‘showing up’ PRO, the Whitecaps will pay for it during subsequent matches as PRO tries to send a message about bringing their mistakes out in the open and having their calls overturned. This is not conspiracy theory stuff, this is a legitimate complaint that other teams have expressed.