MLS ready to join in on video replay experiment

By Ridge Mahoney

Regarding the use of video replay in MLS, the issue is not "if" but "when."

A league spokesperson on Wednesday confirmed that the league is merely waiting for official parameters and guidelines to be issued by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which at its annual meeting Saturday approved a two-year experimental period. The IFAB outlined four situations in which video review can be applied: the scoring of a goal; penalty-kick decisions; issuing of yellow and red cards; and possible cases of mistaken identity regarding cards.

The IFAB plan calls for video assistant referees (VARs) to follow the action and refer to TV footage in case of a questionable decision. The VARs would consult with the on-field officiating crew and aid the referee in his evaluation and possible change of a decision. Certain ideas, such as a challenge system by coaches as is used by the NFL, were not incorporated into the IFAB proposal.

Last month, the German Bundesliga (DFL) declared its intent to experiment with video replay once the IFAB had given its sanction. The Dutch Eredivisie has already conducted tests and presented its findings to the IFAB early this year. At the MLS SuperDraft in January MLS commissioner Don Garber said tests could be conducted this year in the USL, which features the second squads of many MLS teams. MLS conducted its own tests during league matches last year.

I had hoped that the process of scoring a goal would be subject to review, as is the case with touchdown plays in the NFL. Had replay been in use last year, egregious errors such as the ball clearly running out of play in the buildup to Portland’s second goal in the MLS Cup final would have been corrected. If a questionable offside situation occurs leading up to a goal, it could be reviewed as well.

According to information released by the IFAB, video replay can be used to “assist the referee to determine whether there was an infringement that means a goal should not be awarded.” Is that limited to the actual scoring of the goal itself -- possibility by a player using his arm or from an offside position? -- or can the play be “rewound” far enough to examine enough of the sequence to assure its validity? Is the only reviewable issue whether the ball crossed the line?

There is already technology in place to assist the referee in deciding whether a ball crossed the goal line but its use is limited. Citing costs of several million dollars, MLS announced three years ago it would not implement goal-line technology (GLT), which was used at the 2014 World Cup.

FIFA approved use of GLT in 2013 after companies experimented with various systems for several years and conducted further tests under observation by FIFA officials. GLT is used in the English Premier League and Italian Serie A, and will be introduced to the UEFA Champions League next season.

Critics of GLT and VAR and any other refereeing aid they consider to be a blight on the beautiful game sometimes rail that the pursuit of “perfection” in refereeing decisions is a fool’s goal. I doubt if any advocate of technological assistance has a perfect world in mind. The objectives are improvement and reduced errors, which is what any business or organization should strive for.

However, the critics are also wary of limited video replay being expanded in the future, and they have a valid point. But under the IFAB proposal, in situations regarding penalty kicks and yellow/red cards, the use of video replay is designed to avoid “clearly wrong decisions.” Exactly how broad those powers will be isn’t known. A review can be initiated by the referee or the VARs but the ultimate decision is still left up to whomever is patrolling the middle.

A great many close offside decisions lead up to great scoring chances, and thus result in goals, but consistently getting the right camera angle to judge all the possible variations of offside isn’t feasible. Yet in all cases, the referees will be limited in the video-replay process to what the cameras record when they use video replay, and the rules can be modified for cases in which the video is inconclusive. If the ruling on the field stands, I can live with that.

In every situation approved by the IFAB plan, play has stopped: a goal has been scored (or not), a penalty kick awarded, a card issued, a person disciplined. (I say "person" because there have been numerous occasions where an official wasn’t sure which player or coach or other individual was culpable for some action or behavior.) The game’s flow has already been interrupted, so the use of video replay doesn’t in itself stop the game.

Re-starting play might take a minute or two but teams have waited longer than that to take a penalty or free kick or tend to an injured player. There will be problems to be solved and kinks to be worked out, as there are always are when significant changes are wrought. It can be done.

I accept that soccer games, like all human activities, are subject to the imperfections and flaws of those who play and officiate them. I fear the inevitable encroachment of technology. But I'm tired of obviously wrong calls passing into history and if a limited use of video replay can correct a lot of them, go for it.

8 comments about "MLS ready to join in on video replay experiment".
  1. Wooden Ships, March 9, 2016 at 9:35 p.m.

    Ridge, it doesn't sound like you fear technology. I don't care for any technological assist. I know we are talking sport and not civilizations. Finding and getting the truth is noble, but in sport it seems neurotic.

  2. Matthew Vaughan, March 9, 2016 at 11:23 p.m.

    I like the idea of the VARs (video assistant referees); however, I think they're going about it backward in a few ways:
    1) VARs should be able to alert the referee at any time to any infraction they see (over headset), just like the other ARs, not be limited to specific situations.
    2) On the other hand, the referee should never see the video, just as the referee can never see what the ARs saw and aren't supposed to look at replays on the video billboard. They would just rely on what the VAR SAID they saw.
    3) The VAR should not be able to rewind or control the video in any way. They'd just be watching the same video feed as the TV audience (minus on-screen graphics, commentary and commercial breaks). Sometimes there'd be a replay but they wouldn't have control over that (and would be barred from communicating with the TV crew to request specific replays).

    In this way, they'd get an extra pair of eyes seeing everything the TV audience sees, for those "isn't it OBVIOUS what happened" moments that the ref and ARs didn't or couldn't see, BUT they'd still try to maintain the flow of the game as currently.

    I also, by the way, like the idea of two additional ARs who would patrol from the corner flag to the edge of the goal, on the opposite corners from where the current ARs are, in order to better triangulate on the action and to be close to the play when the other ARs are far from it. I also like goal-line technology and would like to see it extended to any out-of-bounds call (the fact that the ball passed the line, not necessarily who's ball it is, until the technology can accurately determine who last touched it too). In soccer this is pretty easy since out of bounds or goals are defined by the position of the ball relative to the line, not the player's position. And in time it could probably be extended to offside calls as well (at least alerting to POTENTIAL offside, as the ARs already do... the ref would still be the one to decide whether to call it or not).

    The use of "where is the ball?" technology would be there to help make the type of calls an automated system would be good at, position information that is indisputable and easily measurable, freeing up the human referees to focus more on player behavior and their judgment of intent as they perceive it. The use of additional ARs and a VAR would be to give more angles, eyes, people with viewpoints close to the action, etc., so as to miss fewer things, see things that are currently out of sight, and generally cut down on the blind spots that allow for "I'm gonna push this player or pull on his shirt when I think the ref is blocked or facing the other direction and can't see", by turning it into "probably, someone can see and will notice at all times".

    But none of it should substantially change or delay how the game is played.

  3. Wooden Ships replied, March 10, 2016 at 12:06 a.m.

    I'm sorry Matthew and respectfully ask you this: did you ever have unadulterated fun playing this wonderful game? Your recommendations and criteria read like an ingredient list with most of the processed foods we eat today. I'm completely overwhelmed with the dissatisfied viewers that watch sports today. You can't see beyond the mistakes. Thank you, all you over thinkers for taking fun out of fun. I will have to say goodnight as Eric Clapton is on PBS now. I need to transport back to happier times.

  4. Kent James, March 10, 2016 at 8:32 a.m.

    The video replay proposals are a good start. See how they work and adjust. I've never understood the 'allure' of poor referee decisions ('they're part of the game'; but wouldn't it be better if they weren't??). I do get that you don't want to break up the flow of the game, but as Ridge points out, in the cases proposed there is already a break, and I can wait an additional 30 seconds to make sure a game critical call is correct.

  5. Woody Woodpecker replied, March 10, 2016 at 9:25 a.m.

    Come on Kent, referees will always make human errors. You can be correct 99 times, but miss 1 and it could be a game changing moment. The game is too fast, no matter how much referees have improved in fitness, positioning, sprinting, and recovery runs. Technology must be introduced, but must be done, very, very quickly to not disrupt the flow of the match.

  6. John Soares, March 10, 2016 at 11:39 a.m.

    Just because some of us may not agree with the "proposed" changes. Does not makes us morons "living in the past". I am all for technology in most aspects of life. BUT, this is a game. None of these "tech" ideas do anything to improve the "ACTUAL" game. In most cases it won't even receive the "approval" the fans that loose the call:). So let the arguments that's fun!

  7. Vince Leone, March 10, 2016 at 12:18 p.m.

    Soccer is often imperfect, unfair, frustrating, etc.--just like real life. Deal with it. I deeply fear that video replays will lead to delays for TV commercials.

  8. beautiful game, March 10, 2016 at 12:40 p.m.

    The biggest problems on the pitch are referees being inconsistent and not getting enough feedback from ARs. There is a communication gap between the man in the middle and ARs. The ARs need to be more responsive to fouls which can be transmitted to the referee almost immediately. Video tech is best only for goal line technology, contact in the penalty area, and off-side calls...the VAR can do this in seconds.

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