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Should VAR Be Fixed Because of Mike Petke, or In Spite of Him?

VAR became the talking point following Minnesota United FC’s win over Real Salt Lake. While some criticism is warranted, RSL head coach Mike Petke didn’t do his cause justice.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Minnesota United FC
Mike Petke’s sending off against Minnesota United FC set off another tirade about refereeing in MLS. Was it justified?
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Say what you will about Mike Petke, but the man makes post-game press conferences interesting. The Real Salt Lake manager followed up his epic 2017 rant following an ejection for arguing about missed fouls with a humdinger after his similar sendoff Saturday versus MNUFC (shield your eardrums, kids):

Petke could have alluded to the episodes of The Simpsons he alleged VAR official Katja Koroleva to be watching (my money’s on a classic Sideshow Bob episode). Instead, he named a trio of notable times where calls made a difference in the game, with cause to single out a foul by Rasmus Schuller in the 21st minute. Challenging left back Danilo Acosta, Schuller tackles late through the leg with studs showing. Had it been head-on, Acosta could have been at risk of immediate amputation; however, because Schuller was somehow too late to grievously injure, a likely red card escaped with just a yellow. Criticism is fair after a tackle like that.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Minnesota United FC
Real Salt Lake’s Danny Acosta following a hard tackle by Rasmus Schuller. Schuller received a controversial yellow for the foul.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The RSL gaffer, however, went off the rails a bit in his memory after that. Lead referee Alan Kelly whistled play dead 13 minutes later for a foul when center back Marcelo Silva clipped a Loons player on a follow through. Petke was furious that the foul was worthy of equal penalty from Schuller’s tackle, but the card, per MLS’s boxscore, was for when Silva kicked the ball out of play in protest. Second, Petke’s ejection came from the non-call on Darwin Quintero’s push off on Justen Glad. Requesting a foul ignores both the attacker’s right to contest a play—given that the ball was entering a playable location, and Quintero’s arm placement would be hard to call as “holding off,” as IFAB would put it—and the basic laws of gravity when considering a 6’1” center back and a 5’5” attacking midfielder.

Rather than whistle for a foul, Kelly opted to play on, determining that Glad’s fall was more due to losing balance versus contact, allowing the resulting goal to stand. Following the play, Petke kicked over a water cooler en route to remonstrating with the fourth official. As Kelly intervened, additional words were spoken that we assume included unprintable language. He didn’t cool off in the ensuing 37 minutes, and the rest likely will result in a sizable, Jeff Agoos-directed donation to charity.

As Petke went through his tirade, he pointed out one of the big issues that VAR has had: a lack of clarity for coaches, players, and fans. When an official gets the notification from the video assistant, he or she indicates just the result (i.e. a card issued, or a goal standing) versus what’s being reviewed. Situations less charged than what Petke initiated can result in the fourth official conveying the decision to the coach; the line is fine, however, for what can be explained. If the press is savvy enough, the pool reporter for the game can submit questions with around 10 minutes before the end of a match to ask about how a rule was applied in a certain situation. The problem? Referees are good at providing non-answers, especially for questions that become a distraction to on-deadline reporters. The crowd of 23,000 fans at the game, meanwhile, is only privy to the side of the discussion that gets published after the fact.

Given that soccer has generally avoided the sorts of call announcements that football uses in the United States following penalty flags, it’s hard to think of what could be done in real time to assist fans. The misinformed criticism that comes from the stands would potentially rise if a referee explains some of these judgment calls during the game. That said, I can think of two improvements for coaches and the media.

First up, there should be a direct avenue for coaches to consult with the fourth official or to listen in with the VAR official following a call for an explanation of the ruling, with stringent conduct rules in place to protect the referees from abuse. Second, the pool report process should be amended to require the lead and VAR officials to provide brief commentary on any call that resulted in any official on or off the field to request or suggest a review, and for the pool reporter to have an opportunity to ask a round of follow up questions with the head official answering before leaving the site.

But the call for transparency goes a bit hollow given the messenger and the method of asking. At the most charitable, Mike Petke displayed a lack of knowledge of the process. VAR is meant to ameliorate the referee’s inability to catch certain calls for understandable reasons, like a center referee being blocked from seeing an infraction, an assistant referee having sub-Olympic sprint speed, focus being on the ball versus the off-scene theatrics, or just plain missing a call. That mandate doesn’t include overruling calls that a referee adjudicates live.

Alan Kelly had a close sight line to where Rasmus Schuller made his tackle and determined the nature of a tackle that he sees at game speed is worth a yellow card. He should be able to make that call and feel comfortable in suggesting that the replay official or the offended coach send their recommendations elsewhere. At minimum, that satisfies critics of VAR who think that replay sucks away officiating’s human element. That ought to leave fair room for coaches like Mike Petke to disagree with calls.

But if he’s to suggest the issue is anything but the level of decision making—set aside the support he got from the team’s Twitter account afterward—it’s an act of obfuscation designed to give falsely delegitimize the referees. Given that Petke only backed up his claims with one clear missed call and two calls that involved creative liberties with the laws of the game (and, in Silva’s case, facts), it’s hard not to count this toward the negative trend of referee abuse that needs to be out of the game.