By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 8, 2017) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer’s plan to introduce instant replay continues unabated. The system, called video assistant referee (VAR) by FIFA, is under review by the International Football Associations Board. The IFAB is the body that changes the rules of the game. With testing underway during preseason, the league is pushing towards a full introduction of video refereeing after the August 2 All-Star Game in Chicago.
The league now has a noted referee in charge of the program. The Professional Referees Organizations, the body the handles refereeing for each of the US and Canada’s three professional competitions, announced on Tuesday the hiring of former Premier League and UEFA referee Howard Webb to oversee the VAR initiative. Webb is perhaps most famous for manning the middle in the contentious 2010 World Cup final.
Webb arrives in the United States to aid in the education of VARs after a stint overseeing referees in the Saudi Arabian league. Like many referees, he seems to welcome the arrival of technology on this scope within the professional game. As recently as last October Webb penned a piece for CityAM.com supporting the introduction of the process. At the time, Webb suggested that video replay needed significant testing and questioned when to use it.
FIFA’s approval of video replay limits its use to “game-changing decisions”, which it identifies as goals, penalties, direct red cards, and cases of mistaken identity.
MLS has been at the forefront of the movement to bring tech into the refereeing process since the concept began to received traction with the IFAB a few years ago. Commissioner Don Garber has long positioned MLS has a willing test market for video technology if and when IFAB and FIFA approved its use. Left out of the advancement on goal line technology because of the expense (reportedly as much as $250,000 to install), MLS is obviously eager to jump on board with VARs.
Video replay gives MLS and PRO, two organizations regularly criticized for refereeing issues during league play, an easy way to improve their officiating. Without spending a single cent on referee education, MLS will cut down significantly on the number of instances that cause controversy when referees make the wrong decision.
Or so goes the hope. There remains a human element even in the VAR process. Even with super slo-mo and multiple views of an incident, it’s difficult to come to a clear decision. Referees who support video replay as a means to take the burden off themselves can’t help but have their decision-making process affected by the specter of video review.
This is the breach into which Webb steps. Whether or not he’s the best man for the job, his experience and fame are boons to PRO and MLS. Make no mistake: the hiring of Howard Webb, a man with over 500 games refereed in the English Premier League and Football League and a name many soccer fans know from his high profile match work, is a public relations win for both of the organizations with an interest in the improvement of refereeing in North America.
For skeptics, video replay looks to be little more than a potential impediment to the natural flow of a professional soccer game. Even beyond concerns about breaks in play, video replay seems to offer little more than the illusion of certainty in a sport that often fails to allow for any. Kicking the refereeing process up into a booth where officials in darkened rooms rush to view replays and radio down decisions makes officiating less transparent, not more.
But this is progress. MLS recognizes that the game will move in the direction of technology regardless of their participation. In a country already accustomed to video replay playing a role in the officiating of other major sports, there’s little reason not to bring the process here as soon as possible.
While PRO goes about the longer, harder business of developing and improving American and Canadian referees, MLS gets an immediate boost of credibility thanks to the VAR initiative. Come August, soccer will change dramatically. Webb's responsibility in MLS is making sure it does so in an effective way.
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