Referees have once again made their way into the headlines and for once MLS has no apologies to make. In the second leg of a UEFA World Cup Qualification playoff, Thierry Henry made a vital assist, crossing across the face of goal to William Gallas' head to score the tying goal. The goal pulled France level in the match and ahead 2-1 on aggregate. There was a problem, though. See if you can spot it in this video.
You might have noticed the clear handball Henry commits to control the ball before his cross. If you did, you're a step ahead of the match officials, who never saw the offense and therefore allowed the goal to stand. Apparently, none of them had an angle that afforded a view of the incident captured by the cameras. Calls from Ireland and even Henry himself for a replay have been rejected by FIFA and probably rightly so. Referees will make errors and we can't set a precedent of replaying every game marred by such errors. It is clear, however, that something needs to be done. Refereeing mistakes may or may not be more common now than the past, but they certainly are more visible. Video technology allows us to see incidents in slow motion and often from multiple angles, and YouTube and other internet services allows those replays to circle the globe. So the importance of making the correct call has never been higher.
Various solutions have been proposed over the years, from video review during games to extra officials. One that's actually being tested right now in the Europa League is the addition of two extra match officials behind the goal lines. These officials are to function like a "human camera" giving the referee a head-on angle on the action, especially those crucial plays in the penalty area. Their close observation is also designed to act as a deterrent to diving and other forms of gamesmanship. They won't be making calls on their own, but instead will be providing the match referee with what they saw to help him in his decision. Would a goalline official have spotted Henry's handball? It's impossible to say, but it would have increased the chances, because had there been an Europa League style official in place, he would have been only a few feet away from Henry as the incident happened. It's now highly probable that we will see goalline officials at the World Cup.
So what does this mean for MLS? Credibility of officiating is crucial for MLS as it works to establish its reputation with soccer fans, and as we all know, refereeing in MLS has been abysmal at times. Unfortunately, the refereeing authorities at USSF aren't overly concerned. If one formed an opinion solely on the basis of the Week in Review reports they publish, one would believe that refereeing in this country is the standard to which all others around the world should aspire. After all, week after week, the USSF reviews and analyzes referee performances and always seems to conclude that the referees on the field got the call correct all along. While this may make USSF and the referees feel better about themselves, it stands in the way of improvement because no one works to fix a problem they don't believe exist. This is where Garber needs to step in and volunteer MLS as the first league to implement goalline officials for all its matches and to serve as a venue for training these new officials before they go to the World Cup. Because of the dire history of refereeing in MLS, it is the perfect league to test innovations designed to improve officiating, and the offset season means that goalline officials can get match experience for the World Cup without having to be introduced in the middle of a competition. Everyone wins, but the biggest winners of all would be MLS fans.