VAR problems should not dissuade MLS

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.)

And 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 enough.

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 data.

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.
14 comments about "VAR problems should not dissuade MLS".
  1. Paul Berry, June 21, 2017 at 3:39 p.m.

    So are we going to have 5 officials every match? If so the lower leagues are going to suffer as 11 additional senior officials will be video reffing MLS, NASL or USL games.

  2. Tyler Dennis, June 21, 2017 at 4:09 p.m.

    Does it make the game better, or worse? A better experience? Does it help maintain the beauty of the game?

  3. Wooden Ships, June 21, 2017 at 4:43 p.m.

    I guess you're in favor of this Ridge along with many others. For me, the game is played and coached and officiated by imperfect people. I don't care how sophisticated the technology becomes it still won't offset the ridiculous desire of non players to butt-in.

  4. Ridge Mahoney replied, June 24, 2017 at 2:34 a.m.

    in all sports and just about everything else in life, people are imperfect. I'm advocating MLS give VAR a real test of conditions, situations, etc. It may not pass muster but since it used in all other major sports and competitions, some version of video officiating is probably with us to stay. That is the world we live in.

  5. Wooden Ships replied, June 25, 2017 at midnight

    Yes, it is the world we live in. But, are the other sports and soccer to be, more joyful with technology? It is esoteric and rhetorical at the same time. The insistence has interrupted my viewing pleasure and the modern US soccer fan is less fun to be around, in part due to an entitlement to not be wronged. Enjoy your work and commitment Ridge.

  6. Ginger Peeler, June 21, 2017 at 6:01 p.m.

    It's STILL contingent on the center ref. Watch the Mexico/New Zealand fracas from today... I think most people watching that particular scuffle would agree that red cards on players from both teams were called for and, by failing to incorporate that information into his decision, that that particular center will be going home, rather than calling any more Confederations Cup games. If the ref refuses to incorporate the VAR results into his decisions, that's a problem, too.

  7. Robert Lobliner, June 21, 2017 at 6:04 p.m.

    It's about time MLS joins the rechnical development of world football. The decision made a couple years ago (?) not to use goalline scoring judgment technology because of "expense" reasons was awful, and this change makes up for that mistake

  8. Craig Cummings, June 21, 2017 at 9:05 p.m.

    Does the VAR official at MLS games have to be from PRO officials, and how many will MLS use?

  9. beautiful game, June 21, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.

    It's the incompetence/delinquencies of referees who do not enforce LOTG and players who break rules and not get punished. Mexico v NZ game showed the total incompetence of the ref who couldn't be bothered to show cautions on several blatant/flagrant fouls before the melee broke out. He's a sure candidate for MLS.

  10. Ginger Peeler replied, June 21, 2017 at 10:38 p.m.


  11. Craig Cummings, June 21, 2017 at 10:51 p.m.

    In all do respect there some good refs in MLS. Kevin Stott for one. Mark had a good game in con fed cup game.

  12. Nick Daverese, June 22, 2017 at 10:55 a.m.

    Hey if the VAR shows the official on the field is consistently wrong shall we get that official off the field? If not why not?

  13. Nick Daverese, June 22, 2017 at 11:42 a.m.

    You know what great officials do when they are not officiating games? They take the bus. When I was a kid I was on the bus here in Brooklyn, and the bus driver was talking to this older guy. Turns out it was Norm Schachter one of the greatest officials ever to do an NFL American football game. Bus was 15 cents then.

  14. Miguel Dedo, July 6, 2017 at 8:42 p.m.

    Unless referees are punished or embarrassed by being overruled for missing calls, particularly not sending off for excessive force (violence) video will be a waste of time and expense. In major league baseball the video umpire has the final say on appealed plays, in gridiron football the head referee has the final say over calls made by other officials. In soccer we ask the referee to overrule himself. It will not happen.

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