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Video Assistant Referee Inconsistencies Create New Causes for Concern for MLS

Once again, VAR and DisCo are at odds.

MLS: New York City FC at New England Revolution Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Video Assistant Referees (VAR) have only been actively involved in MLS matches for three months, and it’s been a rocky beginning, to put things mildly. It was always expected that there would be kinks to work out and rough patches to improve as time passed. The length of time it takes to review the video and the mechanics of the decision are fixable problems that will ideally improve the more often they’re utilized and as the system streamlines itself. Hurdles were always expected to pop up. But a consistent problem has appeared that can’t be worked out over time by VAR in these few short months.

VARs and video review were supposed to render MLS’s Disciplinary Committee (DisCo) largely irrelevant, to the relief of MLS fans everywhere. In theory, major calls should rarely need to be overturned later in the week because they’re reviewed on site and corrected immediately. But the DisCo overturned a third red card in the span of a month when they rescinded Jack Harrison’s sending off in New York City FC’s loss against the New England Revolution over the weekend. These three incidents have actually exposed several individual issues.

Harrison’s incident over the weekend might be the easiest to fix after the debacle over this challenge:

The issue here is a case of interpreting the laws differently. Nima Saghafi saw what he deemed “serious foul play” from the Englishman, whose studs were showing as he dove in on Teal Bunbury. David Barrie, the VAR on site responsible for alerting the center ref to go to video review, apparently agreed and there was no call to consult the replay. But the DisCo disagreed with both, and overturned the call. Straight red cards are one of the instances where video review is not only allowed, but also encouraged.

There’s a disconnect here between the referees and DisCo, which goes back before VAR. Even if Barrie had alerted Saghafi to review it — which he should have — this isn’t an instance of an obvious mistake. DisCo overruling the refs on matters of opinion isn’t a good look.

There was a different problem with Roman Torres’ red in the middle of September.

From that angle, it seems a like a clear-cut case of denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity (DOGSO). In this case, video review was consulted as it should have been and Drew Fischer did not see any issue with his call from the video provided.

But it didn’t show every angle. Our friends at Sounder At Heart had the scoop with an alternate angle that showed that Jermaine Jones went down without contact. The question is, why wasn’t that available to Fischer during the review? Sure, it could potentially slow down the process further, but the trade-off is getting the call correct on the spot and not handicapping a team during a match. It may be costly to set up different angles, but this was a nationally televised match. Did Fox not have an angle that showed the lack of contact?

This is hard to blame on the refs. Fischer called what he saw, the video didn’t give a better view. That’s got to change.

The third example may be familiar.

According to the DisCo, Orlando City got a helping hand on the way to the 6-1 blowout of the New England Revolution. In this case, video review was used to give the red card rather than overturn one, but it’s a similar theme of DisCo undermining the process. Jose Carlos Rivero thought the challenge was serious enough that Silviu Petrescu needed to take another look. After looking at the video, Petrescu agreed and Xavier Kouassi was given his marching orders.

But even after two referees felt the challenge warranted more, the DisCo disagreed. It’s the inverse of Harrison’s red ending with the same result. This is a hurdle that will not be easy to overcome. DisCo still needs to exist as a fallback for cases of human error, but its power needs to be limited in cases like these. When the VAR and video review do the job properly, DisCo overturning the call without an incredible amount of evidence that it was a clear mistake just cheapens the process. Overturning something over a difference of opinion with the two on-site officials is an issue. Until that is fixed, we’re just adding an extra step to the same old problems.

It will take these problems surfacing for the video review process to improve. And while it may be frustrating to withstand these growing pains as they happen, it’s part of the process.