If you’ve watched an MLS game this season, especially a nationally broadcasted one, you’ve likely heard a little more commentary than usual about the referees. And for good reason – by April 4, just five weeks into the season, there had been a record 16 red cards handed out. Coaches, players, and analysts all argue that some of those should have been yellow cards, while Peter Walton, the general manager of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), told reporters that the referees are actually 85 percent accurate in calling fouls this season, which is an improvement from 72 percent accuracy last season.
Accuracy may have improved, but it’s the blown calls that have been particularly frustrating, like the messy ending between Orlando City SC and New England Revolution on April 17. The game started with a New England foul inside the box, resulting in a penalty that put Orlando City ahead within the first two minutes of the game. The Revs drew level in the 37th minute, and it seemed the game would end 1-1, until an uncalled handball in stoppage time permitted Kevin Molino to put Orlando City back in front. Just minutes later, the referee blew for a handball on Servando Carrasco, calling for a free kick outside the area. But after consulting with the assistant referee, the Revs were awarded a PK; Lee Nguyen converted, resulting in a final score of 2-2.
But it’s always been that way, right? We love to hate the referees, and it’s easy because their job has become increasingly subjective. The refs can be inconsistent from game to game (even within games), taking the spirit of the penalty vs. the letter of the law, using injuries as a guideline for severity of call, and attempting to rectify bad calls with makeup calls (let’s be serious – we all know makeup calls exist). When things are going well for your side, it’s easy to look the other way, but as soon as the bad calls come in your direction, the whole stadium starts chanting, “you suck ref” (or worse).
But finally it seems as though the soccer gods have heard our pleas. On March 5, 2016, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) announced a plan to introduce video replay in soccer matches, bringing Major League Soccer up to speed with every other major sport in the United States, who have been using video replay systems for years. While we won’t likely see this happen in MLS until at least 2017, the plan is in motion and the regulations are being discussed. The official IFAB press release stated:
The expectation is not to achieve 100 percent accuracy in decisions for every single incident, but to avoid clearly incorrect decisions that are pre-defined ‘game-changing’ situations – goals, penalty decisions, direct red card incidents and mistaken identity.
Of course, nothing can completely eliminate human error, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The Video Assistant Referees (VARs) reviews will apply only to three main game situations (reviewing goals, reviewing decisions that would result in a penalty kick, and reviewing red card decisions) and one administrative situation (making sure the ref sends off the correct player in the event of a red card). This would certainly have come in handy when Columbus Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst was given a straight red for the foul committed by his teammate Tyson Wahl in their April 16th game against New York City FC. A referee can ask for a VAR review, or a VAR (who is not a video robot, but another referee who has access to the video footage during the match) can initiate a review themselves if it seems like the on-field referee has missed something. The VAR can tell the referee what decision needs to be made, or if it is still unclear, the referee can then review the replay himself to make a decision.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who was on board with goal line technology until deciding it was too expensive to implement, had this to say about VARs:
We spoke to the Board about how instant replay might work, we think it can work, we’d love to see it work. We’ve got to talk to U.S. Soccer, we’ve got to talk to FIFA, we’ve got to make sure the technology works, but you should know that MLS is a supporter of the idea.
Not everyone is excited about the video replay idea. Critics complain that reviewing plays would take up too much time and could ruin the game.
I hear you, critics. Time is something that we all hold dear. I love that I can plan for about two hours to watch a soccer match, and it rarely runs over. With no time-outs and no stopping for fouls, a soccer match just keeps on moving, unlike other sports that have turned a 60-minute game into a 3-hour spectacle (ahem, American football). That’s one of the best parts about the game, but worrying that VAR is going to “take up too much time” is ridiculous.
All of the potentially reviewable situations already cause a break in play. According to MLS Vice-President of Competition, Jeff Agoos, decisions on the field already take anywhere from 40 seconds to over a minute. Implementing VARs would allow the on-field ref to get another opinion, moving the game along quickly. While we may never get back the time wasted when a player flops, Agoos estimates that a VAR decision would take just 20 seconds, which could actually decrease the amount of time involved with these penalty situations.
What is comes down to is that we all just want a fair game. Nobody wants the points doled out on behalf of a bad call (or randomly calculated stoppage time, but that’s a discussion for another day). The PRO is onboard, and coaches, including men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and Real Salt Lake’s Jeff Cassar have expressed their support of the use of VARs in hopes that it will improve the calls on the field.
But again, it won’t be perfect. It won’t help with non-calls, and even some of what it could improve is vague. Take goals, for example. According to IFAB, the role of VARs is “to assist the referee to determine whether there was an infringement that means a goal should not be awarded.” But what exactly does that mean? Would offside calls or non-call handballs be reviewable?
Let’s look again at the Orlando City vs. New England Revolution match. That second Orlando City goal may or may not have led to a review – the vagueness of the policy means we don’t know if a handball that isn’t called can be reviewed – but the second PK would have absolutely been reviewed and likely waved off because the ball actually hit Carrasco’s shoulder. Perhaps the second penalty in favor of New England was one of those “makeup calls” for missing the previous handball that led to an Orlando City goal? New England fans might argue that the makeup call was deserved, as it helped “even out” the game, but with video replay, the refs would have had the chance to get that call right. It’s likely there never would’ve been a second penalty shot, and the game would’ve ended 2-1. While that still may not be “fair”, it does improve the integrity of the game, eliminating what may have been a makeup call by correctly judging where the ball made contact with Carrasco.
Few are under the illusion that video replay is the perfect solution, and honestly, it’s unlikely to completely eliminate the subjectivity that is inevitable in this sport. What one ref thinks is a red card offense could be considered yellow by another, while a third could dismiss it completely. Yes, there are generally agreed-upon fouls that will result in a red card (for example, on April 2nd, when Matías Laba of Vancouver came flying in, studs up, on LA’s Mike Magee and missed the ball but took out Magee), but most of the FIFA rules are pretty vague, noting that a “sending off offense” includes serious foul play or violent conduct. And it will remain up to the referees on the field to determine what is “serious” and “violent” – the robots aren’t taking over yet.
There are still questions to be answered and fine-tuning to be done, but reviewing major penalty decisions will give the referees a little extra help (they are human, after all), and give them a better chance on the more subjective choices that must be made. It won’t be perfect, but it will absolutely improve the integrity of the game.