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MLS makes soccer history with debut of video assistant referees

During a USL game on Aug. 12, video assistant referees—which could be a big part of the future of soccer officiating—made their professional debut.

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Last Friday the sport of soccer was changed forever as MLS became the first league ever to use video reviews in a live match.

This comes after the controversial meeting last June during which the International Football Association Board (The IFAB), supported by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, gave the green light to test the impact of video replays. Under the strict oversight of The IFAB, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is being tested in four MLS matches, the first of which was during last Friday’s United Soccer League (USL) match between the New York Red Bull II and the Orlando City B.

As David Elleray, technical director of IFAB, shared with me, “The time [has] come for the discussion/debate to be based on evidence. Everyone (whether they support or oppose video assistance for referees) agreed that we needed to see if it works and whether or not it benefits the game. The initial testing will deliberately have a limited focus to minimize the impact of the flow and emotions which are crucial to football.”

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The overarching purpose for the VAR system will be to prevent incidents like Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal in the Argentina vs. England quarterfinals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup. Or the clearly poor officiating that negated two goals for Spain, leading to the nation’s exit from the 2002 World Cup. More recently, Peru eliminated Brazil from this year’s Copa America via a controversial handball goal. Clearly, a problem exists.

With that in mind, IFAB has outlined a strict protocol for testing that is fairly straightforward. The VAR will be a top-level referee (either current or retired) who will have extensive training and be assisted by a technology expert. The VAR will monitor the match, checking for clear errors in one of four established reviewable incident categories: goals, penalty kicks, direct red cards, and mistaken identity.

In Friday’s match, it only took 35 minutes before the referee, Ismail Elfath, decided to request a review, changing the course of the game. Elfath made the formal signal, outlining the shape of a TV monitor and then proceeded to the Referee Review Area (RRA) on the sideline. Only 24 seconds elapses between the whistle and the delivery of a red card.

The VAR system was not tested again until the 80th minute, where again, less than a minute after the review process started, the referee was issuing an appropriate card to the guilty player for a foul that the official had not initially called.

After the match, Red Bulls II head coach John Wolyniec seemed fairly pleased with the VAR system, whose two calls were in his team’s favor.

Over the next several months, an independent university will be collecting feedback from players, coaches, match officials and spectators to analyze reactions. A market research company may even be brought in to help sort through all the data. In the end, soccer officials are all hoping to be able to answer several questions: What is the impact of review stoppages on the flow and emotion of the game? What is the accuracy of the reviewed decisions? How many stoppages are used during a game? And what is the duration of each review?

But the VAR system is not meant to review the hundreds of decisions that are made throughout the course of a match. Nor is it meant to replace the referee. It was created to be an aid to the game, in much the same way as goal-line technology has helped to ensure that all goals are proper goals, with the entirety of the ball crossing both the goal line and the goal posts. As Elleray stressed, “When an incident is reviewed, the question is not, ‘Was the decision correct?’ The question is, ‘Was the decision clearly wrong?’” The final decision still remains, as always, with the referee.

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Even now, just days after the final whistle, the data is pouring in. And the initial data may also be the most compelling. The VAR system is more complicated than just watching TV. The VAR is in no way a glorified spectator. He or she will be at the mercy of the number of camera angles available, and the quality of the camera feeds. (Unfortunately, it seems that a Virtual Reality Assistant Referee is still a long way off.)

As it stands now, only live competitions that conform to using IFAB’s protocol and have IFAB’s validation and permission will be able to use the VAR system—and only then with referees that have had the intense and vigorous training. This is a joint venture between FIFA, IFAB and the volunteering leagues that demands the cooperation of all involved. Without that, the resulting data will be nothing more than an exercise in “lessons learned.”

Four more MLS games are scheduled to test the VAR system in the coming weeks. How those referees handle the weight of change will be, undoubtedly, analyzed thoroughly. Several other professional leagues have expressed interest in participating in the future, although it will most likely be offline testing that will not impact any live matches.

With the changing of the guard within soccer’s overseeing committees, the door to the incorporation of new technologies has been blasted open. But for now, future of the VAR system is far from certain. IFAB is only in the preliminary stages of testing with several matches to go, but already they know it will be a long road to any concrete findings. It’s possible that they are reaching for a “Hand of God” of their own, but only time will tell.