By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Mar 21, 2018) US Soccer Players – The biggest story from Week 3 of the 2018 MLS season wasn’t an individual player performance or a dramatic finish. Instead, it was the influence of the Video Assistant Referee on games in three different locations. In all three cases, decisions made using VAR heavily influenced the result of the match.. In these early days of video replay’s use in a sport with a rich history of resistance to change, we’ve seen a mixed response. The idea of “getting it right” appeals to everyone. The mechanism for doing so not so much.
First, the most clear-cut and least controversial use of VAR, a penalty call in the Real Salt Lake versus New York Red Bulls match on Saturday. In the third minute of a goalless game, RSL defender David Horst and Carlos Rivas wrestled for position on the edge of the penalty area during an Albert Rusnak free kick. Horst went to the ground, prompting referee Ted Unkel to whistle for a foul.
Initially, Unkel pointed to a spot just outside of the box. As players began to move to account for the coming free kick, Unkel paused. At the moment, there was no obvious indication that the VAR was actively reviewing the call. When Unkel gave the hand signal for a review, the somewhat humorous “air box” motion, it became clear that the replay official was taking a look. Unkel immediately pointed to the penalty spot, revealing that VAR had determined the transgression took place inside the 18-yard box. Technically, it started outside of the box and ended inside of it.
Putting aside any question of whether Rivas actually fouled Horst, the whole process took less than a minute. Perhaps because the review centered around a black-and-white issue, Unkel did not need to go to the sideline to take a second look himself. He took the information the VAR provided and adjusted his call accordingly.
From the best use of VAR on the weekend, we turn to two more messy examples of the technology impacting games. Both involve red cards for violent conduct, with one also resulting in a game-changing penalty kick.
In Atlanta, it was also a free kick that let to the reviewable moment. In that case, referee Ismail Elfath didn’t initially blow for a foul when United defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez fell to the ground after contact with Vancouver defender Kendall Waston. Gonzalez Pirez stayed down for a few moments expressing apparent pain as the ball went out of play. Elfath called for trainers to attend to the Atlanta player, a delay allowing for the intervention of VAR.
The time from when the ball went out of bounds until Elfath pointed to the penalty spot and issued Waston a red card was more than four minutes. An upset Waston extended the stoppage in play by angrily confronting the referee.
The delay was one thing. The actual call itself was another. A fundamental shortcoming of the process is that the referee’s ability to review a call is dependent on the angles available. Elftath’s view of the moment Waston made contact with Gonzalez Pirez was imperfect at best, useless at worst. Looking at the play from behind and watching Gonzalez Pirez react in the manner he did certainly make it appear that a violent act had occurred.
If the call reversed a “clear and obvious error” as required by the VAR guidelines, why did it take Elfath so long to come to a decision?
Since this is the world we live in now, subsequent views of the play included new angles taken from fans in the stands showing that Waston’s arm didn’t move in a particularly violent fashion and that Gonzalez Pirez made the most of the contact. This was more of a “shove”, with a strong player having greater leverage.
It’s not the Elfath was “wrong”, either for failing to call the foul in the first place or for giving a red card after the fact. Based on the available evidence, he made the decision he thought best adhered to the laws of the game.
Clint Dempsey’s VAR-initiated red card in Frisco was similar to Waston’s. While trying to rid himself of the mark of FC Dallas’s Jacori Hayes, Dempsey swatted backward making contact with Hayes. Where exactly that contact occurred on Hayes’s body is not technically germane to the Seattle forward’s ejection. It does play into the visual that referee Chris Penso considered when reviewing the play on the sideline monitor. Hayes doubled over, giving the impression that Dempsey made contact in a sensitive area.
We don’t know what angles Penso viewed, but his decision was swift. Dempsey’s ejection changed the game dramatically for the already-depleted Sounders, who ultimately lost 3-0.
So where does this leave us? In broadest terms, VAR presents a false sense of certainty where none can exist. Video and slow-motion replays may get us closer to “truth” in some circumstances. In a game where so many calls are subjective, the referee’s replay-assisted decisions can hardly get closer to an impossible ideal, the result is controversy heaped on top of controversy. Right now, VAR tends to put us back where we started, eating time and patience in the process.
More From Jason Davis:
- What will we learn in MLS week 3?
- Derailing an MLS season
- Can MLS win in the Concacaf Champions League?
- MLS plays a surprising week 1
(Photo by Bill Barrett – ISIPhotos.com)