- MLS referees will have video replays at their disposal starting this weekend, but how does the system work and what implications could it have?
The incident is one of the most famous in World Cup history, despite it not being a goal, or a save, or anything like that. Nonetheless, it created an everlasting image: Dutch midfield enforcer Nigel De Jong flying through the air, leg fully extended, driving every single one of his studs into the chest of Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final. As shocking as the thing itself was, the aftermath was even more so: Just a yellow card from referee Howard Webb, a decision he later attributed to his poor viewing angle on the situation. Webb was behind Alonso, and he also had his view blocked by the 6–foot–2 frame of Dutch midfielder Mark Van Bommel.
"I would have liked VAR in that situation," Webb admitted recently during a seminar on the emerging referee technology, an acronym which stands for Video Assistant Referee. "In that situation, it was a clear an obvious error on my part not to send that player off. VAR would have been able to recommend a review to me and I would have been able to make the right call."
Webb may not have had the advantage of VAR back in 2010, but he's helped implement a system that will give it to referees in MLS starting this weekend. After years of discussion, dry runs in youth tournaments, and a troubling moment in the spotlight during the 2017 Confederations Cup, MLS will become one of the first domestic leagues to adopt VAR as an everyday reality. It's the biggest change to MLS gameplay since the league nixed countdown clocks and regular season penalty shootouts, but unlike those changes it puts the league at the forefront of a larger trend within the world's game.
Given all that, there are plenty of questions to be asked about VAR. Webb, now the Director of Video Assistant Referee Operations for the Professional Referee's Organization, has been making the rounds in the last few weeks trying to answer them. You can watch the full seminar Webb gave (which SI.com participated in) here, but here are a few major questions answered regarding something you'll be hearing plenty about in the weeks and months to come:
Literally: What even is VAR?
Well, not to get all nitpicky, but you should really say "The VAR." After all, "VAR" is not the name of the technology. It's the name of a person: The Video Assistant Referee. In MLS, the VARs are drawn from the MLS referee pool and a supplemental list of refs that are on the cusp of joining the rotation of officials used in the league. They are part of the referee crew, just like one of the two assistant refs on the sideline, or the fourth official between the benches. The difference is VARs aren't stationed on the field or really anywhere near it; they'll be in a booth or room somewhere in the stadium where matches are taking place.
What will the VAR be doing there?
In the booth, the VAR will be facing an array of monitors, not dissimilar to what you may have seen during the Confederations Cup.
On those monitors will be all the same feeds the broadcasters for that day's game will use. Nothing more, nothing less. That means no goal-line cameras unless the broadcasters decide to use them. If the stadium isn't set up to accommodate cameras that can get a good angle on a potential offside decision, tough luck.
The VAR's job is to watch those monitors, quickly identify potential missed calls, watch replays and communicate what he or she is seeing to the center referee over a headset.
When will the VAR actually be in position to change a call?
Don't worry–the answer isn't "all the time." In fact, it's pretty far from that. Webb acknowledged that using video review in soccer runs the risk of interrupting the flow of the sport, which just so happens to be one of the things that makes it an attractive thing to watch in the first place. As such, in MLS, PRO is liming VAR usage to plays that involved the following "high-leverage" situations:
• Penalty kicks
• Straight red cards
• Mistaken identity
In each of those instances, it's not just the specific play itself that will be reviewed, but the entirety of what is known as the "attacking phase of play"–essentially, the play that led up to the reviewable play in question (more on that in a bit).
You may notice that VAR will not be used for yellow cards (including second yellow cards that lead to red cards) or common fouls that do not result in penalty kicks. This is simply PRO drawing the line. If MLS referees are liable to have every single one of their disciplinary decisions reviewed, that would take up an awful lot of time, and that's not what anybody wants (unless you're a big fan of watching litigation from afar).
O.K., so what's the process?
Every time one of the four situations listed above occurs, the VAR initiates what is known as a "check." Essentially, that means the VAR is looking over video replays of the event to determine if an obvious error has been made by the center referee. A thing to keep in mind is that the window for VAR review closes as soon as play restarts. So if the VAR needs more time to complete a check, he or she will communicate via earpiece with the head referee to hold play. The head referee has a physical signal to indicate when this is happening: Putting their hand to their earpiece, like so (though potentially without the annoyed expression):
If the VAR determines that an error has been made, it notifies the head referee and recommends a review. At this point, as with the rest of the match, the head referee is still in charge. It can reject the VAR's recommendation for review and restart the game. But more likely, the referee will indicate that a review is underway, which will be indicated by making a rectangular, TV-like shape in the air with their hands. Here's what that looks like in the Australian A-League:
In MLS, according to Webb, in most cases at this point the head referee will go to a field-side monitor to view the same replays the VAR has been looking at (which, again, are drawn from the broadcast feed). The referee can then either accept the VARs recommendation and overturn the call, or reject the VAR, and allow play to continue.
So the center referee has the final say the whole time, right?
How does that "attacking phase of play" factor into this?
Here's the example Webb gave in the seminar for how this works. Watch this David Villa goal:
In this instance, the offense does not occur on the goal itself, but rather a potential handball in the attacking phase of play that led to the goal. If this same goal happened this weekend in MLS, the VAR would immediately initiate a check upon Villa's scoring of the goal and would likely recommend that the head referee overturn the call because of RJ Allen's handball in the buildup.
Here's another example Webb provided:
Because the referee called a PK, and a PK is one of the four plays the VAR can review, this play would initiate a check from the VAR. However, in this case there appears to be nothing wrong with the PK call itself. In the attacking phase of play, though, there is possible foul by Jozy Altidore in the buildup. After a check of this incident, Webb surmised, the VAR would recommend a review to the referee, the PK would be negated, and instead a foul would be given against Toronto FC at the spot of Altidore's action.
The only situation in which the attacking phase of play will not affect a VAR review is in the case of a straight red card.
"If a player gets elbowed in the face, but the player who was elbowed was offside at the time, does that negate the red card? Of course not," Webb said.
The exception to that exception is in cases of what is popularly known as DOGSO: Denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. If a player is given a straight red for DOGSO to a player that was offside in the attacking phase of play, that red card would not stand.
How many times will the VAR be used in the average MLS game?
Webb said that PRO conducted VAR tests at 90 different games in North America, including several offline tests at MLS matches over the course of developing this system. During that time, according to Webb, there were about nine checks and 0.36 reviews per 90 minutes. In other words, a referee made that rectangular TV hand signal and inspected a video review about once every three games.
On average, these checks and reviews added one minute and 16 seconds to the length of the game.
What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a bit! There are the obvious technological glitches that can happen–a malfunctioning earpiece, a bad monitor in the VAR room, etc.
But then there's also the matter of camera angles. As mentioned before, the refereeing crew is ultimately limited by the angles the broadcaster is able to acquire. If there's a question of offside on a goal, it may not be answered by the VAR if there isn't an optimal view to be had (or if a broadcaster chooses not to provide it).
For that, though, Webb says the MLS VAR project will learn as it goes.
"Sometimes those camera angles will be different in different places," Webb said. "As we move forward, we'll see which works the best and gives us the best possible outcomes. It will become obvious over time what the optimum number and positioning of cameras are.
How will this change how we watch game?
In many ways, it won't. Webb insisted on multiple occasions that the VAR will only come into the game in cases of clear and obvious mistakes by the center referee, which are relatively rare.
However, there will be new additions to the game that you may not have seen before, including the referee pointing to the earpiece, and making the rectangular "TV" sign shown above. Webb also said that there will be someone in the VAR booth whose responsibility it is to communicate with broadcasters, press, and the PA announcer at the stadium as to what specifically the VAR is reviewing and why. So you may hear some interesting, NFL-style in-stadium announcements to clear things up for those confusedly watching in the stadium or at home. Webb also said that the VAR booth will identify the definitive angle used to make a decision on a given review and will provide it to broadcasters and to the stadium video board.
How could this change the game itself?
This is the really interesting question, but it's tough to answer entirely without ever seeing the VAR in action. In conversations with Webb, MLS VP of Competition Jeff Agoos, and others, a handful of possible unintended consequences could result from the use of VAR. Not all will happen–in fact, perhaps none of them will. But all are possibilities:
• A decrease in goals – With the VAR present to cancel goals that come from offside positions, or result after fouls in the attacking phase of play, Agoos admitted to SI.com during a VAR demonstration in California that a net decrease in scoring could happen after the VAR system is implemented this weekend.
• More pressure on the MLS Disciplinary Committee – How the MLS Disciplinary Committee syncs up with the VARs around the league will be an interesting development to keep track of as the experiment begins. If a VAR makes a mistake in a game, will the Disciplinary Committee feel comfortable overruling that decision and thus undermining PRO? Both disciplinary bodies will have access to the same information, and it will look strange if they come to different conclusions. Agoos admitted to SI.com that the issue is under discussion, but a solution has not yet been resolved.
• A decrease in fair play – Imagine a situation where a player on Team A has the ball in the penalty box, is taken down with a hard tackle, is injured, and no foul is called. Meanwhile, Team B heads down the field the opposite way, but realizes Team A's player is injured and puts the ball out of play as a sporting move.
In the VAR era, the act of putting the ball out of play allows the VAR to initiate a check, which could find that the tackle in the box should have resulted in a penalty kick, which is then awarded. Had Team B continued to keep possession, perhaps for another five-to-six minutes after the initial foul, the VAR will face a credibility issue in going back so far into the past to reverse a non-PK call. In theory, at least, it may start to be more advantageous for teams to keep the ball in play while an opposing player is injured, in certain situations. Agoos admitted to SI.com that this could be an issue.
• Referees being more reluctant – Because only the four situations outlined above are available for the VAR to review, referees and assistant referees may be tempted to be more lenient in other calls to allow one of those four situations to come to fruition. For example: Whereas before an assistant might not hesitate to call a player offside on a breakaway, now if the assistant keeps its flag down as the player heads in on goal, and that player scores, that makes the play eligible for the VAR to review. Then, in theory, the VAR could make the correct judgment.
Presented with this hypothetical, Webb insisted that referees will be instructed to referee the game as they always have.