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Video Review in MLS: Successes, Failures, and the Future

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Another look at this whole video review thing.

Mexico v New Zealand: Group A - FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

The future is officially upon on us.

Video review, through the addition of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR), has been fully implemented in Major League Soccer for a few weeks now, and there have been both successes and failures with the new technology. Ultimately, there have been positive reviews, but video review needs to keep on updating to be fully functional.

What is Video Review?

For all games, a Video Assistant Referee will be a fifth official working the game who monitors the match off the field and helps determine whether a play needs a second look, or “video review.” Video review may be used in any of four situations — goals, penalty kicks, red cards, and mistaken identity. FIFA defines each of the following incidents in the table below.

Video Review Definitions

Incident FIFA's Defintion
Incident FIFA's Defintion
Goals "The role of the VARs is to assist the referee to determine whether there was an infringement that means a goal should not be awarded. As the ball has crossed the line, play is interrupted so there is no direct impact on the game."
Penalty Decisions "The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with the award or non-award of a penalty kick."
Red Card Incidents "The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with sending off or not sending off a player."
Mistaken Identity "The referee cautions or sends off the wrong player, or is unsure which player should be sanctioned. The VARs will inform the referee so that the correct player can be disciplined."

After one of the above incidents occurs, the VAR will make a suggestion to the referee. The referee then has two options — accept the VAR’s suggestion or review the play themselves.

Implementation

Video review is still in the earliest of stages, but it has been fully implemented in MLS. Howard Webb, the 25-year Premier League veteran referee, has come stateside and out of retirement. The 46-year-old is no longer on the field, but instead is now PRO’s head of video review training.

Bringing Webb on board is a great move for MLS. The Englishman brings experience to PRO that no other referee currently has. Webb also was part of a controversial 2010 World Cup that included 14 yellow cards and a red card, and admits if there was video review there would have been at least one more red card.

So, Webb leading the video review program is a big step forward. And MLS continues to adjust, even in these early stages, to make it better. Is it currently a perfect system? No, but as long as MLS keeps reviewing it and making appropriate changes, video review will be just as important as video replays are in college and pro football.

Early Successes

There have been many video review uses in the few weeks that it has been fully implemented, and the league has already seen its impact. A perfect example of how and why it should be used could be seen in Orlando City’s home draw this past weekend.

In the 74th minute, Yoshimar Yotún was dribbling the ball across midfield when Columbus’ Harrison Afful threw an elbow at his head. The referee, Juan Guzman, called a foul, and clearly did not see the elbow. Leó Pereira, Harrison Barnes, and Donny Toia were all talking with the referee wondering how it wasn’t a red card, but Guzman pointed to his ear, signaling he was getting information from the VAR. Guzman could be seen communicating on his headset, and writing in his notebook before signaling the video review sign. Guzman looked at the video, saw he made a mistake, and made the correct call.

Some criticism of video review is that it kills the momentum of the game. The Mane Land’s Sean Rollins wrote about it a few weeks ago:

In a sport like baseball or football, there are a lot of stoppages in the game that allow for officials to look at replays. So when play stops for a long period of time to review a specific situation, it doesn’t disrupt the game that much. Soccer, on the other hand, is a very fluid game. So when play stops for a long period of time, it disrupts the game pretty badly.

However, this entire process, including Afful rolling on the ground for a few minutes and both teams’ medical staffs coming on to the opposite end of the field, took fewer than five minutes to resume the game. While five minutes may seem like a lot of time wasted, compare it to the NFL, where most video reviews entail countless Doritos and Bud Light commercials. There have also been other reviews that have taken even less time, and it seems PRO has put pressure on its officials to make a decision as quickly as possible.

Early Failures

While video review has been an early success, there have been frustrating moments as well. Last Wednesday, OCB played to a 3-0 win against Ottawa, but after the game Head Coach Anthony Pulis voiced his displeasure with the system.

“I’m really, really disappointed in the VAR system tonight. I think everybody that was in the stadium saw the replay that was on the big screen and it was quite clearly not a handball. It hits [Timbo] underneath his arm. And the fact that we have that system in place, and the referee doesn’t go over to check, was hugely disappointing. For me, if we are going to use VAR, then those are the types of situations that they need to go and review. I may be speaking out of turn, but I was really disappointed in how that situation was handled.”

The play in question can be seen above, and at game speed it looks as if the ball may have hit Fernando Timbo in his arm. The Brazilian’s arm is way above his body as he goes sliding down to make the block. But a replay showed it may have hit his body either before or instead of his arm and a video review was never made.

As Pulis said, though, it is exactly for these types of plays that VAR has been put into place. For there to be no pause to at least take an extra look is absurd and goes against the entire reason video review has been implemented in the first place.

Video Review’s Future

The rules surrounding video review will continue to change and adapt to help the game flow more and, most importantly, to guarantee that the right call is made. However, here lies a problem.

At the heart of review still lies one issue. The reason why people get so upset about officiating in any sport is because the tough calls are judgment calls. The referee, with years of experience and training, recalls everything they have learned and experienced to make a judgement of what happened on the field. Whether the call is made on the field or in a booth, it is still a human making a decision, and fans will still be upset at the outcome if they perceive it differently.

But it is not going anywhere. Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, is a big fan of the technology and video review will most likely be implemented in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The technology will still not be perfect by then, but expect it to be better than it is today as improvements are continually made.

After all, the most important part of officiating is making the correct calls. While this seems like an obvious statement, referees have trouble with this concept and wrong calls can mean players and coaches losing their jobs. While PRO is famous for being inconsistent and poor, video review will go a long way in helping the game.