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Referees should defer to VAR on objective decisions

Whether a player was inside or outside the penalty area should not be up for debate.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get too deep into the discourse surrounding referee Tim Ford’s use of VAR on Sunday, it should be noted that the Seattle Sounders weren’t pinning their 1-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids on him.

“It’s part of this game,” Kelyn Rowe said. “Referees can take over games, but we have to fight through it. We have to make sure not to put it into their hands.”

Head coach Brian Schmetzer was even blunter: “The referees are never why you win or lose, they have a tough job. ... We have to play better and smarter, create more chances.”

With those disclaimers out of the way, there were two decisions that factored pretty heavily into the result. The first came on the Rapids’ goal, where the Sounders contended a foul occurred during the buildup when Diego Rubio collided with Jackson Ragen near midfield.

That’s the kind of call we see made a lot during the run of play, but would be very hard to overturn through VAR. Realistically, I think Ragen just has to be stronger there. There was also the belief that Jonathan Lewis may have been offside on the initial cross, but replays showed that he was behind the ball.

The other call was more controversial, in part because of the logic that Ford used to make the decision. In the 66th minute, Raúl Ruidíaz made a nice move to get around Lalas Abubakar and then appeared to be kicked by Steven Beitashour as he was cutting back into the box.

Ford initially waved off the potential foul but VAR flagged it for review. Ford spent several minutes looking at the play before deciding not to give the penalty.

In response to my questions about why the foul wasn’t given, PRO responded: “The referee could not conclude, based on the available angles, that foul contact took place inside the penalty area.”

While it’s true that the angle on the replay above shows the contact clearly but doesn’t make it entirely obvious where the foul occurred, there were several other angles that did do that. The most definitive one was used by @OffsideModeling and should leave no doubt.

What I find so frustrating about all of this isn’t so much the outcome, but the process. If Ford had said something like “the contact in the box was not deemed sufficient to award a penalty” I’d have been frustrated but understanding, as that’s clearly a judgment call. But to claim there was no definitive angle that shows where the foul occurred is just silly. While neither Ford nor the MLS VAR office have the ability to do these exact measurements in real-time, the reality is that it wasn’t even THAT close. More to the point, there’s no angle that suggests he was likely outside the box, just varying degrees of certainty.

When VAR was first launched, the best-practices recommendation was for the center referees to defer to replay officials on objective questions like in/out. At some point, referees mostly stopped doing that. I think we need to get back into that habit. Center referees should have the final say on judgment calls but this is not really a judgment call. If VAR thinks it’s clear enough to warrant review, they should be trusted at least on the objective part. Referees’ jobs are already hard enough and this would actually make it easier.

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