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VAR Still Not Ready for MLS

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Despite a year of trials, VAR is still not ready to take the field in MLS.

Mexico v Russia: Group A - FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

This weekend, MLS introduced video assistant referee (VAR). While it was the first time it has been used in MLS, it is not the first time the system has been used in American soccer. And, as per usual, MLS found a way to screw it up.

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.

That’s not to say that VAR is a bad thing to institute. In fact, there are situations where VAR is very useful. The problem is how VAR is being used by MLS. When it’s decided that a play will be under review, the referee heads over behind the goal to look at a screen. From that video, the referee makes his decision.

The reviews themselves usually don’t take very long and don’t hold up the game. But the referee walking over to the screen, setting it up, and then walking back onto the field is where most of the time is taken. The more efficient way to handle these reviews would be to have them done in the booth or in a league office and then inform the referee of the decision. The referee already has communication with them so nothing would need to change other than the procedure.

Some might argue that VAR is new to MLS so there are still some kinks to work out. While it is true that the league is using it for the first time, the system was instituted by the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) who officiate all levels of American soccer. The system was first introduced last year at the USL level, which PRO referees also officiate, as a trial run. So the kinks of what was wrong with the system should’ve been worked out there. Video replay in sports is not in itself a bad thing. Especially in fast games with vast space on the playing surface, it can be very difficult for an official to see everything clearly. There are certain calls or no-calls that are bound to be wrong when an official doesn’t have a clear view. Video replay can solve these problems. But video replay must refrain from negatively affecting the game as VAR currently does.

The first time that video review had a major impact on a game was during Saturday night’s match between FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union regarding a goal scored by Dallas. Between the time that the referee, Ricardo Salazar, signaled that the play might be reviewed and the time that he signaled it would be reviewed, one minute and 16 seconds had passed. It was another 47 seconds for Salazar to review the play, return to the field, and reveal the call. In total, the call took two minutes and three seconds.

Ideally, if a play deserves review, it should be done very quickly elsewhere, and the decision then relayed to the referee. If the decision would take more than a few seconds, it’s likely close enough that the call on the field should stand. According to former Premier League referee Howard Webb, who is managing the implementation of the system, 50-50 calls and 70-30 calls won’t be replayed, as they are only trying to eradicate obvious mistakes. And seeing as the actual viewing of the replays is only taking a matter of seconds, this procedural change would take minimal time and not disrupt the game.

This weekend, VAR was used for the first time in MLS. Despite trialing it last year in USL games, there are clearly some procedural issues that must be worked out to avoid major disruptions of games. Hopefully, the league can work these out quickly before something like this happens in an MLS game.