Major League Soccer is about to enter a new era of officiating. Yes, after much discussion and hype, video replay will come online in live games this weekend. Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is being launched with the hope of fixing obvious, game-changing mistakes.
It’s a bold and admirable goal that will, no doubt, be fraught with debate. We’ve already seen the system used at the Confederations Cup and in the Australian top flight to varying degrees of success.
But before it’s unveiled, we should probably do our best to simply understand how it will work. The video attached above answers most of the questions you’ll probably have, but assuming you don’t want to spend an hour watching it, we’ve summed up the key points here:
What kinds of plays can be reviewed?
There are only four types of plays that will be reviewable: Goals, red cards, penalties and mistaken identity. If a play doesn’t fit into one of those boxes, the play can’t be reviewed.
How will replays work?
Every game will be monitored by an official watching replays in real time. If they think a mistake has been made that fits into one of the four reviewable categories, they’ll alert the official on the field who can choose to ignore it, accept the recommendation, or review the play themselves. If a “clear and obvious” error has been deemed to be made, the call will be changed. Either way, the on-field referee will have the final say.
How long does a referee have to make the call?
In conducting studies during live USL games, MLS officials claim only about a 1 minute, 16 seconds has been added to games with review. It was also said that only about a quarter of games ended up having a play reviewed, and based on the information MLS provided, it was unclear if the stoppage was in all games or only in the ones where a review happened. I’m a little skeptical reviews will be this frequent or that interruptions will be this small, but time will obviously tell.
When does the review need to happen?
If there’s a stoppage of play, the review must happen before the ball has been put back into play. Referees will need to signal that a play is under review and stop play. Once play has resumed, the play is no longer reviewable. If there isn’t a stoppage of play immediately following the play, referees are asked to use reasonable discretion as to how long has transpired before allowing for the review.
How does it work once a play is under review?
One interesting twist is that the final play is not the only part of the review. The entire “attacking sequence” can be reviewed. That means that if a foul should have stopped a play from happening before it resulted in a goal, the goal can be disallowed. That goes for penalties too.
It sounds like this will pull more goals off the board than put them on ...
Yeah, it does seem that way. Chances are, we’ll have more disallowed goals than vice versa, but it can work the other way. One example of this was the goal the Sounders had in a late-season road game against FC Dallas that was ultimately disallowed for a phantom foul on Roman Torres. Since the whistle blew after the goal had been scored, that play could be reviewed. Similarly, if a goal is disallowed for offside, it can be reviewed if the whistle came after the ball crossed the goal line.
Will referees be instructed to hold their whistles longer?
Not explicitly. Referees are being asked to call the game exactly as they would otherwise, but human nature being what it is, you’d like to think that referees will be a bit more careful at least when it comes to bang-bang offside calls.
Are they adding goal-line technology too?
Nope. Unless goal-line cameras happen to be part of the broadcast, we’re not going to get truly definitive angles that show whether or not a shot crossed the line in many instances. Some calls will still be obvious enough — that one in Kansas City was used as an example — but this is most definitely not the same goal-line technology that we see in the World Cup or in some of the big European leagues.
What can’t be reviewed?
Frankly, most things. Throw-ins, fouls leading to free kicks, fouls that go uncalled, the vast majority of offsides, harsh yellow cards -- even those that result in ejection — are just some of the potentially significant calls that can’t be reviewed.
Why is it going live now?
That’s a very good question. The best I can come up with is they wanted all this time to test it off line, but also wanted to go live as soon as it made sense. It does create some odd competitive questions though.
Is this going to be a disaster?
My prediction is that there will be some frustrations, mainly with the system’s limitations, early on. But once people get used to how this works, I suspect it will be a net positive. Every call won’t be right, but more of them will. That’s good.