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‘It’s inexplicable’: We need to talk about VAR

It’s a good thing for the game, guys. But it needs to be fixed.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not already aware, Greg Vanney began his post-match press conference on Wednesday by asking reporters to gather round and look at a still on his phone, which was a screenshot of Handwalla Bwana’s game-winning goal for the Seattle Sounders. The picture he showed us looked a lot like this:

“You can tell me what VAR does,” he suggested to the media. “You can have your own opinion, I’m not gonna share mine.”

Oh, but share his opinion he did. I think, in fairness to Vanney, because his comments were scathing but measured, I should include his words in full:

“I don’t think, I know it’s offside. I’m looking at it right here. It’s just inexplicable; two of our last three games, to me it’s inexplicable. Like I said, I just don’t know the point of what we’re doing if this isn’t offside. It’s pretty clear, if any part of the body that can score a goal is in an offside position, the player is offside. We’ve got multiple looks at this; not just the run of play, but a secondary look at it. I just don’t understand.

“And we don’t even take a real look, honestly. That ball is back in play about as quick as it can get back in play on a goal. It’s incomprehensible. I’m not sure if in four years I’ve ever sat up here and talked about a referee job, but this is frustrating.”

Now, I’m not here to debate whether the goal was offside or not. It might’ve been, but you can definitely argue it wasn’t clear and obvious. You could also argue Sebastian Giovinco was offside on Jonathan Osorio’s first-half goal. Nobody is blaming VAR or the officiating for TFC’s loss — Seattle came in with a game plan, and it went pretty much perfectly. We need to avoid pinning genuine faults in the way TFC played on things outside of their control.

There absolutely is a discussion to be had about VAR, though.

Although I still support the concept, the use of VAR in this league has been consistently inconsistent. Giovinco’s goal against the Chicago Fire was called back for offside, and perhaps it should’ve been. Jonathan Osorio’s marker wasn’t, and that one might’ve been even further offside. Chicago were awarded a penalty for a play that you can certainly make a case for, but I don’t know if I’d call it a stonewall PK.

When video review was first introduced, Greg Vanney was one of the system’s biggest proponents. His gripe is not at all with the existence of VAR, nor with its inclusion in MLS. He added later in his press conference that the calls are, no matter what, still being made by human beings, and that it’s hard to fault the basic human error that’s been a part of the game since its inception.

“VAR is just a video system at the end of the day,” added Vanney at the end of his press conference. He acknowledged the human error in it, and conceded that a lot of the calls could’ve gone either way. He also stressed that TFC did not lose the match because of officiating.

“My debate is more on the execution of it so that we all have a good understanding of what it is,” he said. “I think it can be effective, I do, because I’ve seen it be effective in certain ways.”

Indeed, VAR can be used to good effect. It got an Atlanta United goal disallowed on Wednesday which absolutely should’ve been (I can’t find a better video yet). The problem with VAR is transparency. MLS players and coaches seem to have no idea what the actual process is. What can be reviewed? Beyond goals, what calls can the league reverse?

The league’s official explanation is that every goal is reviewed automatically, and that any “clear and obvious error” in the initial call will be communicated to the referee, who checks it himself on a video screen. Apparently, the VAR can also review red cards (not second yellows, though), penalties, and mistaken identities.

That sounds reasonable, and in theory it makes sense. You use the available technology to better inform the referee’s decisions. That way, the ruling still rests with the head referee, as perhaps it should.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

What teams seem to find most confusing, though, is what exactly prompts the video assistant referee to tell the head ref to check something. Vanney makes a pretty good point: how can you honestly say a goal has been checked thoroughly when play kicks off so quickly? If the league doesn’t want to be overturning borderline offside calls, as you can argue Bwana’s goal was, then I get that. That 100% makes sense. But why, then, disallow Seba’s goal against Chicago?

Also, how could a red card-worthy play slip past without the referee even noticing anything? every ref has a slightly different threshold for red cards, and every individual VAR will too.

Ashtone Morgan, for example, was smacked in the head by Bwana early in the match, in a play that probably deserved a booking, but received nothing. Was that checked? It’s hard to tell what’s a debate about VAR, and what’s just a debate about referee Ted Unkel.

“Nobody’s expecting every call to be perfect. That’s not reality, that’s not sports,” said Michael Bradley on Wednesday. “Football is a game that, there’s so much grey to begin with, and it seems to me that all VAR has done is make more grey. There’s more uncertainty, there’s more question about what can be checked, what can’t, what’s deemed clear and obvious, what isn’t, why some goals are checked quickly in the booth, why in other moments the referee on the field makes the decision to go over to the screen.”

On the other hand, you really don’t want every goal going to VAR. You’d lose a lot of the excitement if players never celebrated until the referee gives the green light. So, what’s the solution here?

Would it be better to go the route of a coach’s challenge, where managers can request a play be reviewed? That’s worked to some degree in other sports, although it remains a controversial topic. There’s also the way rugby does it: the television match official spots an error, just like the VAR, but he’s the one who ultimately makes the call.

Maybe the reason it works better in rugby is that it’s a vastly different sport in terms of officiating. The referee and the TMO both wear microphones, which feed into the TV broadcast. That way (after the fact maybe, for those at the game), at least you know why a call was made one way or the other.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, I hope these are just the growing pains of video review in soccer. As an Ireland fan, I know all too well how horrible it is to have your team fall victim to an egregious missed call (I’ll never forgive Thierry Henry). A lot has to be smoothed out for this to work in MLS, though. It reflects poorly on the league for one of its pet projects to be so openly criticized by so many of its coaches and players.

The main thing, I think, is MLS has to loop everyone in a little better, and I’m pretty sure that’s what Vanney wants. He seems pretty dissatisfied with the responses he’s gotten when he’s asked the league about VAR incidents. Even in the moment, on the pitch, referees need to communicate to the players and fans what exactly is going on — often when a call is changed, there’s no explanation given for why. You’ll just see the ref run over to his little screen, make a box motion with his hands, and then off we go.

There’s no good reason for VAR to be such a mystery, or operate in such secrecy. It’s not a magic show. There has to be some accountability. The fact that the league can’t (and won’t) really explain why some calls are changed and some aren’t indicates that they know it hasn’t been working perfectly. They need to be more open about the process, as it seemed they were going to be when the system was first introduced.

Of course, if VAR screws up at the World Cup, then video review’s days might be numbered.

What do you think? Is there a solution here? Should the system be different, or should MLS just communicate with fans and teams better?


What’s your stance on VAR?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    It’s working fine.
    (12 votes)
  • 55%
    It needs to be improved, but I’m optimistic.
    (212 votes)
  • 25%
    It needs a major overhaul.
    (97 votes)
  • 15%
    Scrap it altogether.
    (59 votes)
380 votes total Vote Now