Video Assistant Referee makes full MLS debut

By Sye Bennefield Jr.

On Tuesday night during the 2017 MLS Homegrown match, viewers at home and on hand had the opportunity to witness the first glimpse of video review technology, although in the scariest of circumstances.

After a collision between FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez and Chivas’ U-20 forward José de Jesús Godínez, Video Assistant Referee (VAR) made its MLS debut, four days earlier than first issued.

However, the outcome of the video review was for naught, no red card was shown to Gonzalez. But viewers got to see the new initiative that will be carried out through the remaining MLS regular season, including the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs and MLS Cup.

The VAR initiative will have an additional referee positioned in a booth with technology that allows him or her the access to real-time video from every available camera angle. The head referee receives alerts from the communications system advising him or her on “game-changing” decisions such as goals, penalty decisions, direct red card incidents (such as between Gonzalez and Godínez) and cases of mistaken identity.

Retired referee Howard Webb was specifically hired as Director of VAR Operations for the Professional Referee’s Organization (PRO) to oversee the development of the referee’s and their use of the technology, as well as the assignment of VAR in Major League Soccer as a whole. And just minutes before the Homegrown players v Chivas U-20 match, Webb shared his disbelief of the notions that VAR’s will have a negative impact on how the game is played.

Retired referee Howard Webb discusses the VAR initiative with journalists before the MLS Homegrown match. Sye Bennefield/MEDILL

Instead, he feels it will add to it.

“We feel it’s going to be a really useful additional tool for our officials to use to avoid making clear errors,” said Webb. “It’s not going to change the way the game is played, if it does that then it’s not doing the job that it’s meant to do.”

Webb emphasized how the game [soccer] is already “beautiful,” and “fast flowing.” And he and others are not trying to change that. They instead want to give officials “a better opportunity to avoid making clear errors,” the very kind that change results of matches and can be avoided with video replay.

However, while Webb and other officials want to further assist an already difficult job in refereeing, they aren’t aiming for always being correct.

“It’s important to note that we’re not aiming for 100 percent accuracy,” said Webb. “Things will still happen on the game which are subjective, things which people can form different opinions on post-match when they analyze it.”

Because of the subjective nature of soccer and in many cases, sports in general, it can be downright impossible to make decisions that everybody outside the game would fully agree upon.

“Referees are asked to define whether something happened with excessive force in their opinion,” said Webb. “Or whether the handball was deliberate. And quite often, people form different opinions on what they actually seen.”

Webb referenced his lone year working in the Barclays Premier League to provide a better understanding of the differences in opinions he’s faced, from club captains no less.

“We went to visit 20 Premier League captains, [as] part of our education program about officiating,” said Webb. “We showed a video clip of a handball situation and the room was split ten-ten. Ten thought penalties, ten thought not penalties.”

Webb and the officials at PRO aren’t entirely trying to avoid combating these kinds of grey areas but instead shifting their focus on the calls that clearly wrong and could be ruled against with VAR’s.

There are many fans and observers who worry that the video review checks will take too long, a problem that both the NFL and NBA face in crunch time situations. However, Webb made it abundantly clear that of the nine or so checks going on during the match, 0.36 actually get reviewed per 90 minutes.

Meaning, a referee inspected a video review about once every three games. With the average checks and reviews adding one minute and 16 seconds to the length of the game.

Homegrown coach Brian McBride admitted he had no problem with the use of the technology during the match against Chivas U-20.

“In the long run, I’m for [VAR],” said McBride. McBride sees this as an opportunity to allow fans, players and coaches of MLS to get accustomed to VAR and most importantly, getting the call right. “This is all a part of adapting and growing and understanding the changes that are being made to help our sport and help the correct result come about.”

At Soldier Field, Wednesday night, hours before the league’s annual all-star game, Commissioner Don Garber reiterated the same goals and tasks as Webb.

“As you all know we have always been a proponent of using technology to make our game better, to allow our fans to have a closer connection with our players and our sport,” said Commissioner Garber. “This is about trying to correct errors that are made, it’s not about trying to correct judgment.”