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How MLS could be a global soccer trendsetter with Video Assistant Referees

MLS has already made soccer history with its use of VARs, and if the pilot program goes well, the technology could expand internationally.

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The last two weeks have been momentous in soccer’s history. Major Soccer League (MLS) has started testing video assistant referees (VARs) in live matches after it got approval from the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to try out the system.

Most professional leagues in North America—like the NHL, NFL and NBA—are used to video reviewing technology. But this is the first time video replays are being used in any professional soccer league in the world during live games.

These live tests are a part of IFAB and FIFA’s experiments to know if VARs would improve the game. Australia, Brazil, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands—through their national leagues—will also participate in this experiment.

This is how the review process will work: The VARs will have convenient access to videos from every possible camera angle. The referee can ask for a review. Alternatively, he may also be recommended by the VARs to review an important decision. The VARs then will guide the referee through his headset. The referee will have two have options then—to see the video on a monitor near the pitch or get VARs’ advice and then make a decision.

Decisions about goals, penalty, red card incidents and mistaken identity are considered to be reviewable because they can be game-changing.

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The use of video replays in soccer is not a new debate. While the primary motive for using replays is to avoid “Hand of God” situations, the main argument against the use of such a technology has usually been that it will affect the pace of the game.

This is one of the biggest reasons why the VARs system will be tested for a period of two years—to find out if and how it will impact the game and its flow. As current FIFA president Gianni Infantino said earlier this year in FIFA Magazine, “It’s important, even crucial, to see what kind of impact it (VARs) will have on the flow of the game. One of the peculiarities of football is its flow—it doesn’t stop, like many other sports where you have the time to look at videos. If the flow can be guaranteed, then we can see how technology can help the game. But we need to start with serious tests sooner rather than later.”

So far, videos reviews have been tested in two United Soccer League (USL) matches.

In the first match, in which the New York Red Bulls II hosted Orlando City B, video replays were used once in each half. All those involved in the testing deemed the first trial satisfactory (though it did not lead to any game-changing decisions; the Red Bulls won 5–1). In the second match, however, VARs indeed proved to be a game-changer. The replay led to a penalty being awarded to the Red Bulls, who went on to beat Louisville City FC 1–0.

The point here is that VARs are intended to be used largely for game-changing decisions and indeed can affect the outcome of a match.

That being said, fans of the game as well as traditionalists critics can take solace in the fact that all decisions will be reviewable. IFAB technical director David Elleray has said that only “clear errors” in certain match-changing situations will be considered for VARs.

It is safe to say then that VARs trial will aim for both better efficiency and accuracy while measuring the impact on the flow of the game. This also means that a referee’s importance will not be undermined because of VARs. If anything it will assist the referee in making accurate decisions. The game will not become entirely mechanical (which is what a large number of fans have feared about VARs.)

The other major factor that affects the flow of the game, and which will be considered in this experiment, is the time taken to use such a video technology.

In the first live test conducted by IFAB, the VARs process took more than 95 seconds in both the instances during the USL match between New York Red Bulls II and Orlando City B. Some may consider this quite long. But it is interesting to note that in early (though unofficial) experiments, both MLS and the Dutch Football Association found that VARs need anything between 5 to 60 seconds. So it is possible to speed up the VARs process in a way that does not hamper flow, especially since the IFAB’s 24-month VARs experiment is just two games old.