The future is officially here.
After what felt like years (oh wait, it actually was years) of debate surrounding how and when Video Assistant Referees would be implemented, the program has finally made it to Major League Soccer. VAR has been in an extensive testing phase for a long time, undergoing a variety of trial runs in leagues around the world.
The 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia served as VAR’s first real appearance on a global stage. There were inevitable glitches in the system and moments (or was it minutes?) of confusion during reviews, but everyone knew it was coming.
The fantastic beast that is VAR is now coming to an MLS team near you on August 5th. There is a lot about the Video Assistant Referee program that needs to be understood, so here’s a fairly comprehensive look at what to expect from VAR in MLS.
So, how does this whole “VAR” thing work?
VAR is a review system unique to professional soccer. There are fragments of the procedure that may be recognizable to fans of the NFL or NBA, and even more parts similar to rugby, but VAR is in a league of its own. The mantra behind the program, at least according to former World Cup Final referee and current VAR implementation leader Howard Webb, is “minimum interference, maximum benefit.” This idea is part of what makes VAR a special program in that it limits its own powers and draws fairly clear lines over what it can and can’t do.
What can VAR do?
Not all that much by itself. The Video Assistant Referee has the power to review situations that involve goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards, and cases of mistaken identity. The VAR has access to every camera angle used by the stadium broadcaster and uses those views to make a recommendation to the match’s center referee. It is ultimately up to the center official to decide whether to heed their video assistant’s advice, take a look at the play on a pitchside monitor for themself, or keep play going.
What do they review for a goal?
The most obvious thing to review is whether or not a goal was actually scored. To paraphrase the Laws of the Game, a goal is scored when the entirety of the ball crosses the goal line. The vast majority of goals in all levels of soccer are obvious, as the ball hits the inside of the net in a noticeable manner. Every once in awhile, there are some close calls though.
Take the screenshot below from a match between Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas last year.
SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia slides in an attempt to keep the ball out of his own net. He does clear it, but not before it crosses the goal line, as shown above. During the match, no goal was called, which is understandable—after all, this is one of the few views that would show the ball in the goal. With VAR, that would change. The Video Assistant Referee in the replay booth would have access to this shot and alert the center referee to what happened.
The second-most-obvious and second-simplest reviewable condition is offside. This is the reason many goals are disallowed now, pre-VAR, and that isn’t likely to change with the new system. It is inevitable that Assistant Referees miss an offside call every once in a while, so the VAR will take a look at that same angle fans see on their TVs after a goal is scored and check that there are no infractions.
Before we move on from offside, it’s important to remember that this could go both ways. Take a situation where a team scores a goal and, in the midst of their celebrations, they and the center official discover that the assistant referee’s flag is wrongfully up. As long as the referee’s whistle comes after the goal is scored, the event will be reviewed as a goal (VAR doesn’t review plain offside calls). The eyes in the sky will check the replay, see that attackers were well onside, and recommend that the goal be awarded. It’s important to understand that if the whistle came immediately, before the goal, there would not be a review.
The last reviewable part of a goal is the most complicated and it involves the concept of APP, or attacking phase of play. There is no rigid definition for the APP, but it is essentially the run of play in which the attacking team shows a clear intention of going forward with the ball toward the actual goal. VAR can disallow a goal if the replay shows a foul committed by the attacking team in the run-up. Take a look at the clip below, taken from a seminar on VAR.
In that GIF, you see Montreal Impact (and former Chelsea great) Didier Drogba shove a Toronto FC defender to the ground before scoring with a header. The referee didn’t see this foul during the game, so the goal counted, but with VAR this would likely be overturned because of a foul committed during the attacking phase of play.
That seems fair, but please say there’s less to explain about penalty kicks.
It’s fairly similar in what needs explaining about penalties. Like a goal, the referees on the pitch either call PK or play continues. VAR reviews both called penalties and instances where a potential foul occurred in the box, and there are a couple of scenarios for both.
If the center official points to the spot and the Video Assistant Referee deems the call to be correct, nothing different happens. Players will complain, the kick will be taken, and life will go on. If the referee calls a penalty and then receives word that that call was incorrect from the VAR, things get interesting. Take the GIF below from a match between the Vancouver Whitecaps and DC United.
That play was deemed worthy of a penalty by the referee, but replay shows it very clearly was a dive. If VAR were to catch something like this, the center official would be recommended to issue a yellow card for simulation to the player who went down. It seems logical that there will be in an increase in cautions for diving with VAR in place.
If the referee doesn’t see a foul inside the area, or just chooses not to call it, VAR can recommend that play be stopped and the referee go back and award a penalty. There is a limit to this time-travelish power though. Once play stops and then restarts again, the Video Assistant Referee calls a “reset” and plays before the stoppage cannot be reviewed. That means that if there is a potential PK that isn’t given, the ball goes out of play (let’s say for a goal kick), the penalty decision cannot be reviewed once that goal kick is taken. Referees are one step ahead of the loophole created by this, and the signal below is now an accepted way to communicate that a check is in progress and the restart should wait.
There is one scenario that needs to be discussed, and it came up very recently. In Minnesota United’s last match, midfielder Miguel Ibarra was pulled down in the box. The referee didn’t stop play, and the New York Red Bulls scored promptly after on a counter-attack. The no-call on Ibarra going down would certainly be checked by VAR, and if the recommendation for a penalty kick came, New York’s goal would be taken back and Minnesota would receive a PK.
Okay, what is reviewed on send-offs?
First off, it’s important to specify that only straight reds can be looked at. If the Video Assistant Referee took a look at second yellows, they would have to check every yellow card, which is unnecessary and inefficient. Red card reviews are much like penalties. If a referee gives one out, it is either confirmed by VAR or rescinded. If a center official misses a send-off offense, VAR can recommend that a red card be issued.
Things get a little more complicated with a specific red card offense: denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO). This is the only potential time that APP would apply to a red card review.
There is an example that is hard to show in GIF form, but it goes like this: Orlando City forward Cyle Larin was off to the races with a chance to go one-on-one with the Toronto FC goalkeeper when he was roughly taken down from behind in a tactical tackle. This is an obvious case of DOGSO, but replays showed that Larin was initially offside when he was passed to. With VAR in place, the Video Assistant Referee would look back through the APP and negate the red card, giving the offside to Toronto. A red card could still be awarded to the defender if the tackle was deemed to be serious foul play.
Mistaken identity has got to be simple, right?
It is. If the referee confuses two players or needs to take another look at who started a brawl, VAR could be used.
What goes into a VAR review?
There are actually two types of actions the Video Assistant Referee does, checks and reviews. Checks happen every time one of the situations talked through above occurs. If the VAR finds something in one of the checks, they will alert the center referee. The referee will then make the iconic TV-in-the-air signal and can either take the VAR at their word or walk over to the pitchside monitor and take a look at the play. After a decision is made, the official will again make the TV signal and inform the players of the decision.
How long is that going to take?
According to PRO data from 90 test matches, the average time it takes from check to review to restart is 2 minutes 41 seconds. PRO says this is only about 1:16 longer than existing delays for arguments and such and that time used for VAR decisions will be added on at the end of halves. In that test data, there were 8.9 checks per game (which don’t stop play) and 0.36 actual reviews, so fans can expect a review about once every three games.
Are fans expected to just sit quietly and guess at what is going on?
In theory, there will be adequate communication. One of the Assistant Video Assistant Referees (yes, that is actually a thing) will be in contact with the stadium announcer and replay person, as well as media members and broadcasters. The AVAR is expected to share the definitive camera angle with the live and TV audiences.
Speaking of communication, how will technical difficulties be handled?
Since VAR relies on the TV broadcast team’s camera angles, things are bound to go wrong. If certain cameras aren’t functioning, or for whatever reason not being displayed in the VAR booth, the Video Assistant Referee will have to do their best with what’s available. Should communication between the booth and the referee be interrupted, plans will be in place for other two-way forms with the fourth official.
There are going to be a lot of questions as different scenarios are played out during VAR’s implementation. There will be errors, there will be glitches, all because there will be humans behind this. If you a.) made it this far, and b.) still have questions, ask them below in the comments or you can check out a seminar for MLS media members put on by PRO’s Howard Webb that gives more detailed looks at some examples used here and elaborates on how VAR will work.