Our City is a weekly column dedicated to an examination of Orlando City, Major League Soccer, and the American soccer landscape from a social and cultural perspective.
Last night’s D.C. United game against the Columbus Crew was punctuated by Paul Arriola’s red card. While the foul probably warranted a red, he was shown a yellow at first by referee Ismail Elfath. After a two-and-a-half-minute delay for Elfath to consult the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and review the play on the monitor, the card was switched and Arriola headed unhappily towards the locker room.
Last weekend, it took Orlando’s favorite referee, Ted Unkel, three minutes to review and reverse his initial red card against Atlanta’s Chris McCann into a yellow during United’s match-up with LAFC.
Of course, closer to home, Orlando City’s game with the Portland Timbers saw two solid minutes’ delay while referee Baldomero Toledo reviewed and switched Sebastián Blanco’s second yellow card into a penalty kick.
These three video review events are only a small selection of examples of how this revolutionary new rule has been implemented in Major League Soccer. For the record, consulting the VAR led to the referee changing the initial call on the field to the right one, even if Arriola’s red did seem a little soft. My problem with video review isn’t the accuracy, it’s the way it’s changing the game.
In the case of Blanco’s red card turned penalty kick, it absolutely bewildered Orlando City stadium and the crowd. It was emotionally unfair to take a crowd from the elation of going up a man to instead facing down a penalty kick, which in this case was converted by Diego Valeri. Orlando’s home field advantage was deflated for at least 20 minutes after the call.
During the Orlando broadcast, ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman commented on the three-minute video review ordeal taking the enthusiastic crowd out of the early part of the game in Atlanta the day before. So, it wasn’t just the Orlando call; these events have similar effects around the league.
The introduction of the VAR and the rise of video review has invariably altered the supporter experience, as crowds now chant “V-A-R!” at any foul the fans disagree with. During the Atlanta episode last week, the camera panned through the crowd with grown men making the shape of a computer monitor with their hands in an effort to encourage the referee and the unseen forces that control such things to have a look at the monitor and see if maybe they could see it their way. Is this what we’ve paid good money for — the chance to cheer from the stands for a person who should be virtually invisible to the crowd to go across the field and watch TV?
There is a spirit to the game of soccer. It is the first thing any new fan you bring to the stadium will comment on — it doesn’t stop. Like most American sports that seem slightly obsessed with stops and starts, soccer moves and flows. With video review, the game becomes something different. During these long pauses, players consult with coaches and they lose the tempo of the game.
Twellman commented five minutes after Portland’s penalty goal that Orlando City looked to “lack urgency.” I’m not sure it was urgency as much as it was a gut punch to a team that had been playing well enough and had a call go for and against it in an extreme swing. Players are as human as the supporters, and psychologically that kind of call is going to do a number on a team.
Writing this, part of me wonders if I’m just role playing an old man yelling about change. I understand the frustrations of fans with bad and missed calls in MLS. I just can’t join the camp of trying to change that by any means necessary, including spoiling the key elements of the game I’ve spent my life loving.
Of course, even with the corrected call, Portland fans were still sour that Orlando City was awarded a penalty kick for a foul against Dom Dwyer that led to Sacha Kljestan’s game-tying goal. One can assume that the VAR official reviewed the play and decided not to make the call for Toledo to review the play (meaning he saw no “clear and obvious error” with the foul called on Alvas Powell). Even with these long, momentum-killing pauses to review plays, fans will still never be happy when calls go against them. If that’s how it will be anyway, why not just let the game play out as it has for centuries?
What do you think, is video review worth the time and changes to the game? Are you willing to be patient while MLS and PRO streamline the process?