MLS Reffing in 2018: VAR from the get-go and the Points of Emphasis

Ref boss Howard Webb  named four areas for MLS officials to focus on to help "make the game more attractive" as the league enters its first season in which VAR (Video Assistant Referees) will be used the entire season.

In a conference call with media, Webb, General Manager of PRO (Professional Referee Organization), announced that this season's Four Points of Emphasis will be a continuation of those from 2017, while PRO Video Review Operations Manager Greg Barkey addressed the league's use of VAR.

VAR Year 2

MLS introduced Video Assistant Referee midway through last season and it was used in 154 games. Nearly 1,500 incidents were checked and reviews -- interventions that stop the play -- occurred 50 times, about one every three games. Thirty-two errors were corrected during reviews.

"In the offseason, we improved our training of our referees and our VAR so you will expect to see the referees be much clearer in the signals that they use," Barkey said. "Especially if they are going to overturn an on-field decision. Much clearer so everyone understands where the new restart is after a changed play."

Barkey emphasized that just because the game isn't stopped for a review doesn't mean VAR hasn't taken a look.

"Every play is being checked automatically in the background," said Barkey, referring to what are known as silent checks. "If a player falls down in the penalty area, you can be assured the VAR is going to look and see why he fell down. If someone is injured, there's a hard tackle -- it's always going to be looked at. It happens automatically.

"Just because you don't see the referee with his finger to his ear and holding the play does not mean it's not being checked. That signal is for when the VAR is not finished checking the video."

VAR is used for goalscoring situations, potential red-card decisions, penalty-kick situations and cases of mistaken identity on yellow and red cards.

Only one change has been made in VAR protocol -- for reviewing violent conduct (a red-card offense).

"In the case of violent conduct -- spitting, elbowing, that type of egregious behavior -- it doesn't matter if there's been a restart," Barkey said. "Any time that violent conduct is seen by the VAR it can be acted on by the VAR and the referee."

FURTHER READING: Howard Webb on the VAR project, what's working and the comfort of the words 'Check complete'

Four Points of Emphasis for 2018

Visual dissent
Holding and pushing in the penalty area
Persistent infringement
Delaying restart and time-wasting

"The idea of the Points of Emphasis is to try and deal with some of the things that happen in our game that if dealt with can make our game more attractive," said Webb. "And they're pretty much in line with what we saw last year."

Webb said that yellow cards for dissent increased by 8 percent in 2017.

"We understand and expect emotion from our game," said Webb. "But we have to draw the line in terms of those actions that undermine the authority of referee. Those clear actions where the players in a prolonged way, in a sustained way react to a decision -- running toward the referee, waving arms toward the referee, clearly shouting in an aggressive manner."

On persistent infringement, 2017 saw a 59 percent increase in cautions related to players committing repeated offenses that are not per se yellow-card offenses. The caution for persistent offenses can also apply to teams taking a rotation approach to fouling opponents.

What constitutes persistent offenses is left to the judgment of the referee; the FIFA rulebook does not provide a specific number or define a pattern of offenses.

"We want the flair players in our league to excel," said Webb. "We're asking our officials to continue being proactive to deal persistent infringement."

Delay of game cautions increased by 39 percent in 2017, but Webb said MLS has had year-by-year decreases in effective playing. Referees are being asked to continue cracking down on delay of game violations- - such as kicking a ball away before a free kick or teams in the lead taking extra time to take a goal kick -- and will be evaluated on how effectively they add stoppage time for delays such as injuries, substitutions and VAR use.

"There has been a tradition of referees adding 30 seconds for a substitution," he said. "But if a substitution takes longer, because a player walking off very slowly, than the lost time must be added."

On overly aggressive goalkeeping

In February, FIFA's Medical Committee recommended to FIFA's Referees' Committee to take action against overly aggressive goalkeepers -- that referees apply the current rules to goalkeepers as they do to field players.

"We've been monitoring that situation ourselves," said Webb. "It's not made it into the Points of Emphasis. At the moment, we don't see it as such a big problem here. However, the officials are being told to be vigilant and firm in terms of challenges by goalkeepers that are deemed worthy of being penalized and in the same way that an outfield player is. … So part of the visits with our 23 member clubs included video examples of that type of situation where a goalkeeper maybe gets there just late, we're saying now that's a penalty kick. It's not longer acceptable for goalkeepers to dominate their penalty area by foul means.

"I think traditionally there has not been an equal interpretation of those types of situations by referees, not only here, but across the world. I think maybe because of that we've seen greater instances of injuries happening in those situations. … I think the ultimate decision would have to be made by the referee as to whether or not the actions of the goalkeeper would be deemed reckless and if they're leading with the knee and driving it towards an opponent -- then that has got to be judged as either reckless or excessive force depending on how much force is used in that particular situation.

"On the flip side of that, if outfield players make contact with goalkeepers when they could avoid it with a goalkeeper who's going down on the ground to collect a ball low, then the goalkeeper will be protected in that situation as well and the Video Assistant Referee, when it's clear and obvious, will intervene, and certainly I know the MLS Disciplinary Committee will be vigilant on both sides of this coin in terms of challenges with goalkeepers."

7 comments about "MLS Reffing in 2018: VAR from the get-go and the Points of Emphasis".
  1. John Soares, February 28, 2018 at 5:32 a.m.

    Good points... too bad the general over agressive even violent events did not make the list.

  2. Scott Larson, February 28, 2018 at 4:27 p.m.

    To ease the fan's frustration and poor assessment of US referee performance, I think it is important for the MLS to make available the video examples that were shared with the 23 member organizations.  This would greatly increase my enjoyment of MLS soccer, as I don't like being angry, I don't like walking out of MLS games before they end to due  frustration of poor referee performance.

    The typical fan/player/coach/amateur referee already has a strong opinion based on his past exposure to the game for foul/no foul decisions and the resultant frustrations and poor MLS referee assessment's derived by secret new directions to referee's become our perceived reality of "Crap Ref's"

  3. Wooden Ships, February 28, 2018 at 5:42 p.m.

    With respect to Scott above, I believe too many people have unrealistic standards/expectations of officiating. I also believe that the quality of officiating mirrors the quality of play. Referees should always error on the side of technical play, if coaches and owners don’t highjack the officials authority perhaps our quality of play will improve. The more pleasent to the eye the MLS becomes, the faster we have a chance at becoming a highly thought of league. Toughest job in sport, officiating. 

  4. Scott Larson replied, March 1, 2018 at 6:33 p.m.

    Responding to Wooden Ships point above.  My point was not that MLS referee's are too tight, or not tight enough, but that based on my personal historical perspective, MLS referee's don't mactch my expectations resulting in reduced game enjoyment.

    My point is that everyone has their own opinion as to what consistutes a good referee, because everyone has their own opinion on what constitutes a good vs bad call/no-call decision.

    If MLS shares the video examples of fair vs foul distributed to clubs with the Fans & amateur referees, then my opinion can be reset to a new expectations, resulting in a fairer assessment of the referee and a less frustrated fan base.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, March 2, 2018 at 10:52 a.m.

    I agree completely with WS.

    Blaming referees for the level of play is missing the point. Referees allow play. They don't dictate the quality of play that is allowed. Furthermore, teams that play fairly make the referee transparent in the run of play. 

  6. beautiful game, March 1, 2018 at 11:29 a.m.

    Webb's track record speaks for itself. When it most counted, Webb swallowed the whistle. When players started dictating how the pitch officials apply LOTG FIFA remained in in a coma and continues to do so. our Points of Emphasis for 2018

     Visual dissent
     Holding and pushing in the penalty area
     Persistent infringement
     Delaying restart and time-wasting

     The scrum in the penalty area came into vogue in 2014/2015 season and three seasons later the introduction of VAR has become a salvation talking point. The "points of emphasis 2018" wants to electronically enforce what the officials have refused to enforce for years. VAR should be used only as a "goal monitor" and a post game vehicle to identify the flaws of officiating and enforcement of LOTG, and its immediate resolution. IMHO, Webb et al has been derelict in his duties from day one, and FIFA's comatose state in not fixing the meaning of "rule interpretation" has pointed the game into a lawless direction. In conclusion, Webb's 2018 Points of Emphasis is a weak effort to resolve his incompetence as Head Official for MLS.

  7. R2 Dad, March 1, 2018 at 12:35 p.m.

    Four Points of Emphasis for 2018


    Visual dissent - THIS IS NOT IMPORTANT, TOP REFEREES SHOULD BE ABLE TO MANAGE THIS UNLESS LEAGUE INTERFERES
    Holding and pushing in the penalty area - IMPORTANT, BUT THIS STILL FALLS TO CORRECT APPLICATION BY REFEREES. VAR WILL NOT SAVE THEIR BACON HERE
    Persistent infringement - WOULD BE A MIRACLE, GREAT IDEA BUT THIS HAS ESSENTIALLY NEVER BEEN ENFORCED AT ANY PROFESSIONAL LEAGUE, ANYWHERE
    Delaying restart and time-wasting - THIS IS NOT IMPORTANT

    * Diving - JUST IN CASE HOWARD WEBB GETS ON THE EPL BANDWAGON WITH THIS WITCHHUNT, THIS IS ALSO NOT IMPORTANT. NO-CALL IS JUST AS EFFECTIVE AS A CARD, WITHOUT THE GUESSING

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