Will Video Review create a divide among referees? They’re human, after all

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

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Video Review has arrived in Major League Soccer, and after its first weekend in MLS many have been quick to praise its debut.

Without question, there are good reasons for that. Referees Ricardo Salazar and Drew Fischer employed Video Review to correctly disallow goals in Philadelphia and Portland, respectively, and they did so efficiently and in a manner that only minimally disrupted their respective games. The speed with which the replay system worked is, in and of itself, a significant early victory for MLS’ new initiative.

If those were the only two Video Review-related events of the weekend, the replay system would have had a flawless debut. They weren’t, though, and the nature of the controversies that remained in spite of VAR (video assistant referee) tell us something important about what we can expect from video replay.

It’s very likely that others will trust their perspective on the field as they have throughout their careers, and be more reluctant to take the booth’s recommendation to head to the sideline monitor.

In Portland and Kansas City, referees made controversial penalty decisions that did not progress to on-field reviews by the center official. In Minnesota, a crucial and close early offside call that kept Abu Danladi from being through on goal also didn’t bring the referee to the video monitor, because the play was stopped before Danladi could score.

By now the scope of reviewable calls is familiar: goals, penalties, red cards and cases of mistaken identity can all be looked at from the booth. And although every sport that has instituted replay to date has employed (and often changed) reviewability rules, MLS’ hybrid system of booth and on-field review presents a unique dynamic.

Under MLS’ review protocol, the video assistant referee in the booth initially reviews each potentially qualifying play to determine whether there was a “clear and obvious” error, and, if so, recommends to the center referee whether the referee should review the play on the field. The referee, then, is free to accept or reject the booth’s recommendation.

This protocol, though, leaves many questions unanswered. Just how “clear and obvious” must an error be in order to recommend review and ultimately overturn a call on the field? If the unreviewed penalty decisions in Portland and Kansas City are an indication, it appears that standard could be quite high.

But will it be applied the same in each of the four categories of reviewable plays? If the first weekend and its tiny sample size represents a larger pattern, it is certainly possible that goals will be reviewed more scrupulously and overturned more liberally than penalty decisions.

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The disallowed goal in Philadelphia raises another question: If referees will review goals to determine whether an infraction occurred in the “attacking phase of play” that could negate the goal, how far back will they look?

If the goal comes from a 15-pass buildup, would review apply to a potential handball on the player controlling the first pass? How about a foul that immediately preceded the start of that possession?

Beyond the ambiguity in the Video Review standards, however, lie questions in how referees will approach it. Will assistant referees, for example, keep their flags down on close offside calls more often because they know if the play ultimately results in a goal, Video Review can correct a close, but clear error?

That didn’t happen in Minnesota and, as a result, we never got to see whether Danladi could finish his break and, in turn, whether referee Jose Carlos Rivero would find he was offside after review.

Although it can easily be forgotten, referees are human, and, as such, each has a different style of managing a game. Center referees, then, will also likely handle the VAR’s recommendations differently. Some – perhaps most – will readily accept recommendations for review when they come from the booth and head to the sideline to have a look.

But it’s very likely that others will trust their perspective on the field as they have throughout their careers, and be more reluctant to take the booth’s recommendation to head to the sideline monitor or, even when a referee goes to the monitor, will be more reluctant than others to reverse their own decisions.

At the end of the day, even if Video Review naturally produces calls for a greater number of plays to be reviewed, are more reviews desirable given the unavoidable disruption – however minimal – that they cause?

Even in light of some of the positive signs from week one of Video Review, then, the truth is we don’t yet know the answers to many of these questions. As such, although MLS is certainly entitled to time to put its system into practice and to perfect its protocol, the jury has to remain out on video replay.

If only it were around all season...

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