It’s official. MLS finally announced that the video assistant referee (VAR) program will be implemented league-wide starting Aug. 5 in a huge step forward for the game of soccer. MLS has been a pioneer league for VAR, pushing for its implementation long before other major leagues. While it has been utilized in this year’s Confederations Cup and the second-tier United Soccer League, there have been some early bumps and questionable calls.
It’s natural with a system that is still in its infancy to have some bugs and missteps even with the year of testing it has endured. But even with the potential issues, for the Orlando City and MLS faithful, it’s a change that hasn't come soon enough.
Lions’ fans and even club brass have long been vocal about the need for improvement with PRO Referees. Jason Kreis has gone on record multiple times recently about inconsistency. Former gaffer Adrian Heath had similar things to say during his time with Orlando in MLS.
The club has been a large part of the initial testing on the system; Orlando City B’s clash with New York Red Bulls II last season was the first instance of VAR being implemented in the world. Unfortunately for Conor Donovan, that meant he was the first player sent off using VAR in a 5-1 drubbing. OCB was also chosen as a test match in the preseason for its match against Oklahoma City Energy.
The big question is will VAR do enough to placate fans when it comes to overturning human error. MLS states that the assistant refs will be able to rule on four things: goals, penalties, straight red cards, and mistaken identity. And for Orlando, it’s not hard to point to the changes it could have made had it been around since 2015.
While PRO has been maligned around the league for game-changing calls, City seems to have been on the short end more than its fair share. Just over the past two and a half seasons: the Philadelphia Union had a game-winning goal that was incorrectly allowed as well as red cards that were later rescinded for Cyle Larin back in 2015 and Rafael Ramos earlier this year. Fans will also remember the penalty incorrectly given to the New England Revolution late on in the match last year that led to a late 2-2 draw. That said, chances are that match was more likely to end 1-1 if VAR had been available given the arguable handball from Kevin Molino on the go-ahead goal moments earlier. This also doesn’t count the dubious red cards and potentially offside goals that Orlando has seen through the last two and a half seasons. Kaká’s red card against Real Salt Lake would have been looked at, potentially affecting that outcome. With the limitations MLS puts on appealing expulsions, turning over the ones that should be overturned during the game will only help take some of the decision-making out of that process. The Lions have also had questionable calls bounce their way -- as everyone has in MLS — but this system is built to change that and eliminate as much of the human error as possible.
For a club like Orlando, that has consistently been just a few points out of the playoff picture, these can be season-changing mistakes. All of these instances could have been avoided with the use of VAR and hopefully will be in the future. PRO is taking this seriously, hiring former Premier League veteran Howard Webb to oversee the system’s implementation. They also sent Jair Marrufo and Mark Geiger to the Confederations Cup.
With the mass rollout coming Aug. 5, we’ll see it in action for Orlando’s away trip to the Montreal Impact, the club’s first match after the MLS All-Star Game. With the Lions once again fighting for their place above the red line, having this added assistance can ensure that if they miss the playoffs they only have themselves to blame.
It’s a step in the right direction for the game as a whole and Orlando City fans in particular should be happy to see some extra help for the refs on the field. If you’re interested in learning more about VAR, MLS will be hosting a live seminar today at 2 p.m. on the league’s YouTube channel.