By Ridge Mahoney
In light of difficulties and confusion regarding the use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at the FIFA
Confederations Cup in Russia, it would be logical to assume Major League Soccer might choose to delay its implementation until next season.
Of course, if logic were running the show, MLS
would not be planning to make such a drastic change in midseason anyway, but as laid out by Commissioner Don Garber
, the league -- which has been testing VAR in selected games as well as USL
matches -- will use the system in league matches that follow the MLS All-Star Game against Real Madrid.
Obviously, the MLS Board of Governors believe that embracing the latest
technological innovation to governing play will outweigh the confusion and controversies sure to ensue, as well as the inequity of a first half of the season being played under a different set of
procedures than the second.
However, since rule changes are normally implemented during the FIFA calendar break between seasons, which falls in the middle of the MLS season, the league is
merely following suit as soon as it can. Yet the system has yet to be approved for the 2018 World Cup and a final determination won’t be made until March, and truth be told, MLS is an ideal
testing ground to supply additional data even if it means moving the goalposts halfway through the season.
First, let’s review. The VAR system assigns a video assistant referee to
each game. The VAR watches game action on TV monitors and communicates with the on-field officials during the game.
Final authority on a decision is still the province of the match
referee. He can ask the VAR for assistance and the VAR can suggest a play or incident be reviewed, though the match referee can decline the suggestion. A designated monitor near the sideline is used
by the match referee to watch replays. In no circumstances does the VAR render a final decision, as is the case in rugby and a few other sports that use video replay.
Probably no league
in the world can offer stadiums across-the-board with the state-of-the-art video equipment and technology available in MLS facilities, so from that standpoint, FIFA will have optimum conditions for
evaluation of data.
(This may, conversely, become a problem in leagues or competitions intending to use VAR but hindered by substandard equipment or outmoded technology.)
frankly, the quality of officiating in MLS games varies widely, due both to the officials themselves, extreme weather conditions, cramped scheduling and rather haphazard quality of play.
Head-scratching decisions are all too common in MLS games and on this basis alone the league is ideally suited to test VAR. If it’s not to be the Laboratory of the Absurd, it’s close
What FIFA badly needs is not a two-week, very limited database as provided by the Confederations Cup, but a vast volume of incidents and situations, discussions and decisions,
recriminations and revisions that occur in a somewhat consistent, controlled environment. This is what MLS can provide and is eager to do so, in sharp contrast to its stance of more than 20 years ago
regarding experimentation with larger goals. Wisely, MLS refused to serve as guinea pig for a gimmick most of the world despised. (Larger goals were tested in some lower leagues, along with tweaks of
offside and tiebreaker methods.)
Here are the four areas for which VAR can be utilized:
1) Play leading up to a goal can be reviewed for possible incidences of offside,
ball out of play, handling of the ball, etc., that could result in the goal being annulled;
2) Questions of whether a foul occurred inside or outside of the penalty area to determine if a
penalty kick or free kick should be awarded;
3) Questions of whether a red card is the right decision or a yellow card is warranted instead; and
4) Cases of possible mistaken identity when
officials are unsure of which players should be punished.
No question that adopting VAR in its formative stages is akin to poking a beehive with a stick and will be a searing
headache for the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), which manages officiating matters for the major North American leagues and operates the Independent Panel, which reviews incidents in MLS
games and is empowered to rescind red cards as well as issue them retroactively along with fines and suspensions.
The Independent Panel will obviously have to incorporate VAR into its
process, which is sure to whip up even more confusion and concern than already present, which is a considerable amount. Yet if VAR moves the league closer to proper, consistent implementation and
interpretation of the rules (or Laws of the Game if you insist) it will be worth it.
There’s even the chance that an exhaustive, extensive use of VAR in MLS will tease out so many
problems that its worldwide use will be delayed or abandoned, though with the Bundesliga also set to implement VAR when its season starts in August, there will be more than one national lab supplying
The danger of VAR is that it can seed hesitation and uncertainty, and thus countermand binary instincts of whether to blow the whistle. Officials using VAR are instructed to not
take action if in doubt and let play continue, rather than kill a play -- say for a close offside decision -- that might be unfolding in accordance with the rules. It’s designed to be an aid,
not a panacea.
VAR is not the be-all and end-all and probably never will be, assuming it sticks around in the first place. It is fraught with problems that won’t be solved by the
time the Confederations Cup champion is crowned. But this should not deter MLS, which is also in its formative stages and fumbling its way trying to get things right more often than not.