There’s something not quite right in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s story about the missed penalty against Kim Kee-hee in the 30th minute. I can forgive the fact that they completely ignore any calls that might have gone against Atlanta United — they could have arguably been down to nine men by the time Kee-hee dragged down Chris McCann on a corner kick. I’m even willing to overlook the article’s obviously flawed premise that the missed penalty is what cost Atlanta United two points. They’re speaking primarily to an Atlanta audience, after all.
What got me a bit worked up, though, is the explanation of why the penalty was missed. Howard Webb, the general manager of PRO and the point person for the league’s VAR initiative, offers a hard-to-believe explanation: Alex Chilowicz, the official in the booth, simply didn’t see the infraction.
I’ll grant that the VAR official has a lot to look at on any given play and is somewhat handicapped by the feeds they are watching. But the angle that showed the supposedly definitive replay was shown on the broadcast 13 full seconds before the ball was in play.
The feed that clearly showed the foul was from behind Atlanta United’s goal, toward Seattle’s goal, and was the program feed. Webb said that feed isn’t typically monitored because it’s run by the broadcast production crew.
That’s a bad excuse!
I find it nearly impossible to believe that the VAR official did not see the infraction, and if they aren’t monitoring the broadcast feed that’s a huge problem. More to the point, shouldn’t VAR be capable of switching between the various angles to see the best one? After all, it was obvious enough that someone in the broadcast booth figured out this would be an angle viewers would want to see.
What’s equally bizarre is Webb’s assertion that it’s definitely a penalty. I tend to agree that it probably is, but the broadcasters didn’t even note it and I’m not at all convinced the call would have been changed even if it had gone into a formal review.
This is what I think is more likely to be going on here: Webb is both covering for one of his officials by claiming they didn’t see the definitive replay and placating a fan base who feels particularly maligned by VAR. Neither is a particularly good look. If PRO is trying to build good will, I’m not sure this does anything to help. Webb is putting on a show of transparency, but not actually providing it.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that the only actions that the Disciplinary Committee will apparently be taking from this match are to fine Jordan McCrary for failing to leave the field in an orderly manner and Victor Rodriguez for embellishing contact on a play that actually drew a yellow card. There will be no further punishment for Leonardo Pirez Gonzalez’s dive or his elbow on Nicolas Lodeiro, nor will Josef Martinez be punished for appearing to headbutt Chad Marshall.
There is one bit of encouraging news in this story, though. In addition to the claim that VAR officials have correctly ruled on about 98 percent of the more than 1,400 plays that have been reviewed this season (a claim that is impossible to verify), Webb suggests the league is considering the possibility of investing in a centralized review center where multiple officials will be able to scan replays and presumably do a better job of finding the right angles. This is what the NHL uses to review plays and closer to the system that was being employed during the World Cup where there were four VAR officials watching every game, as opposed to one PRO official manning the VAR booth in MLS games.
Unfortunately, the short term effect of all of this is a lackluster explanation from PRO, which doesn’t even address the one-sided nature of this particular discussion. I’ve been a proponent of VAR from the beginning, but there are clearly some issues that need to be fixed if we are to ever to trust that it’s improving outcomes.