By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Apr 19, 2021) US Soccer Players – It was the type of technology that was going to forever change the game. It was going to end all debates and usher in an era of fairness. Like all new technologies and innovations, the promises are often bigger than the realities. The widespread use of the video assistant referee, commonly known as VAR, over the past two years gets very mixed reviews.
Back in March 2019, the International Football Association Board approved the use of VAR and officially wrote it into the Laws of the Game. MLS has used VAR since late 2017, the first domestic league in the world to test the technology. FIFA tested it successfully at the 2018 World Cup. The next step was the Champions League and domestic leagues across Europe.
The consensus a few years ago was that VAR would help eliminate human error and end debates over blown calls. Instead, its use has, in some cases, exacerbated them following a string of questionable decisions. Almost every week brings a new controversy.
Play-by-play voice Ian Darke wrote earlier this year on ESPN.com that VAR has become too much of a talking point. “The original idea of VAR was a good one: to prevent serious miscarriages of justice, help under-pressure referees and produce a better game. But that laudable aim has been lost. It has become way too intrusive, which is why there needs to be a major rethink by FIFA about the way forward.”
With a new MLS season underway, how will America’s topflight avoid such pitfalls? Former Premier League and World Cup referee Howard Webb, who heads the Professional Referees Organization that oversees MLS game officials, said all refs will visit the screen located on the sidelines to review plays. In England, for example, refs don’t often re-watch plays from a sideline monitor. That cuts back on the time, up to 90 seconds, per review.
“We feel that, ultimately, we want the referee to be the final decision-maker in all cases,” Webb said of what MLS refs will do this season during a panel discussion on April 12 held via Zoom. “It works for us.” Webb said seeing referees consulting a monitor “emphasizes to the stadium audience that the review is taking place…. They (fans) can see the unfolding process playing out in front of them,” he added.
The most controversial VAR decisions have come on offsides and handballs. For example, the half-shoulder offsides call only visible on review. The handball issue is intent, often disregarded in favor of awarding a penalty. The IFAB modified the rules of the game to address intent on a handball in advance of the 2019-20 season, but it remains an issue.
Still, Webb said VAR has been highly effective in MLS. Comparing the 2019 season to last year, MLS reduced the length of reviews by eight seconds. In situations eligible for review, like offside on a goal scored, the accuracy went up from 93% in 2019 to 98.5% last year. Major League Soccer’s opening weekend had no big VAR moments to speak of, but that’s not enough of a sample size.
PRO has also introduced something called “Match Official Assessors” to give referees feedback after games. Alan Black, PRO’s Head of Coaching, Education and Evaluation, has worked on improving officiating standards since 2018 and also runs the assessor program.
“Over the past three years, the assessor panel has gone through an extensive rebuilding program,” he recently told PRO’s official website. “This is an aspect of officiating that traditionally people don’t talk much about.” The panel – made up of 30 ex-referees from around the world – “plays an important part in their development,” Black added.
VAR’s use, meanwhile, will expand across North America and the Caribbean over the coming year, including the later rounds of the Concacaf Champions League and this summer’s Nations League and Gold Cup. Last year, 23 of the region’s best head refs and assistant referees learned how to implement VAR, both the on the field and the review booth, ahead of its broader adoption.
Just look at the opening round of the Concacaf Champions League for examples of what the game is like without instant replay. Toronto had a goal waived off in the 29th minute against Leon last week that VAR would’ve likely ruled good. Toronto went onto win the game and the series, but it’s a clear indication of the need for video review. Soccer at all levels is about momentum. Bad calls kill that, even if the aggreived team recovers.
The best VAR can do is to improve accuracy, but that still depends on interpretation. Even with the notable calls added by instant replay that probably shouldn’t have happened, that doesn’t mean it lacks value. Instead, it’s still an ongoing process. Major League Soccer is helping lead the way, and that’s a good thing.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- MLS 2021: Tactical preview
- Playing the Concacaf Champions League
- Preview: 2021 MLS season
- Austin FC’s expansion season
Photo by Bill Barrett – ISIPhotos.com