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Our City: Better Refereeing Through Technology?

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With the MLS All-Star Game come and gone, the league has moved forward with its plans to implement VAR technology. Welcome to the world of tomorrow. Don’t retire your angsty anti-authoritarian chants just yet.

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup -USA  at Jamaica Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Our City is a weekly column that examines the soccer culture surrounding Orlando City and Major League Soccer.

Say hello to the new reality and welcome your new technological overlords. Major League Soccer has implemented the new and much heralded Video Assistant Referee. After more than a year of testing and discussion, MLS has rolled out a cure for everything that drives managers, players, and supporters crazy. Finally, Orlando City won’t be losing games because of poor referee decisions costing us the game. Retire “the ref belongs on OBT chant” and let’s watch the beautiful game in a lawful utopia of fair play.

Except none of that will actually happen. You know that, right?

Well, the part about VAR coming to MLS now is true. That is actually happening for the second half of the MLS season. The referee team will add a fifth member, who will be charged with reviewing any play involving a goal, a red card, a penalty decision, or a case of mistaken identity in issuing yellow and red cards. In theory, this is a useful tool for the most important game-changing plays. In practice, we hope it will run smoothly and not become “a source of confusion” as Zinedine Zidane claimed it was during last year’s Club World Cup.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. Trust me, I’m still bitter about Philadelphia Union’s last-minute game winner from last April that should have never been allowed. I get it that bad calls change games.

I also know from years of watching MLS website featuring Instant Replay, with the louder than necessary Simon Borg, that we don’t always agree with calls, even when watching them in slow motion from multiple angles. That disagreement is nearly always amplified if the call is against the team you passionately support. Countless weeks I would remember a call I didn’t like, only to see Borg claim it was a fair tackle.

MLS should be praised for making an effort to find ways to facilitate fair play. Taking a chance on new technology is never easy and implementing it into the dense fabric of the game will not come without issues. Most likely these will be small issues, and nothing like canceling the game because the Geek Squad forgot to bring the VGA-to-HDMI cable to the stadium.

There is another danger, beyond just the glitches of implementing new technology. That danger is the belief that a technology will act as a magic cure for whatever is broken. In this case, MLS and the Professional Referee Organization. While broken might be a harsh word, the general consensus is the standard needs to be raised. The league also understands we need to continue to develop and train the next generation of referees. As the leagues grow to feature more teams (MLS, USL, and NASL are all actively expanding), and as the game gets better and faster in the United States, our referee pool needs to keep up. So far it hasn’t, and adding a VAR isn’t the cure for developing a pool of world-class referees in the United States.

With that said, I’ll be watching with you and hoping that VAR has a smooth roll-out and adds a level of fairness to the game. There should be an interesting adjustment period for some of the players in the league that have made a career out of taking every advantage. I don’t think VAR will bring any additional wins to Orlando City though, as these things work both ways. We will still, inevitably, get calls we don’t agree with and we will still direct our frustrations at the man in the center, or maybe at the guy squinting at the computer monitors on the sideline.

Say it with me now: “The video assistant referee belongs on OBT!”

What do you think? Is something better than nothing? Do you think it will add something or hurt the game overall? Do you think this the beginning of a technological revolution in professional soccer? Let’s talk about it in the comment section below!