The Moment: Yamil Asad's red in Toronto gives us a glimpse of soccer's future
Was this the game of the year?
We're just six weeks into the Major League Soccer season, so let's not be hasty, but within the short sample so far, we have not seen anything better than Saturday night's Toronto FC-Atlanta United thriller. The 2-2 draw was an end-to-end fight between should be MLS Cup contenders, producing a result that helped make the Eastern Conference race a real squeeze.
The top nine teams are separated by just three points, reminiscent of last year's New York Red Bulls/New York City/Toronto FC stretch run at the top of the conference.
The clash was punctuated by superb goals, but its most telling moment, the moment of Week 6, occurred during a three-and-a-half-minute paused with 15 minutes to go.
A red card to Atlanta’s Yamil Asad's with about 15 minutes to go for clipping the back of Eriq Zavaleta's head with his right elbow had little impact on the result, but it offered MLS fans a taste of the league’s future.
Toronto and Atlanta had been exchanging blows all night, with the Reds conceding an equalizer just 73 seconds into the second half, the same course its Week 2 draw at Philadelphia followed.
Both sides were pushing for a go-ahead strike when, in the 74th minute, after an Atlanta foray was halted, TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono rolled the ball to Zavaleta on the right above the box. Zavaleta pushed forward with Asad in quick pursuit.
THE BIG PICTURE
Referee David Gantar, who seems to find himself in controversial territory every time he's in the middle for a Toronto FC match -- there was Gilberto's canceled winner in September 2014 and Morrow's red card in March 2015 -- whistled Asad for a foul the moment Zavaleta hit the turf. It took another 90 seconds, after walkie-talkie conversations with his fellow officials, before he presented the Argentine attacker with a red card.
The contact is subtle, although Zavaleta after the game showed off a growing bump on the back of his head, and Gantar's view from the center circle was different than those we eventually saw. It wasn't a simple decision, and Gantar is to be praised for taking the time to figure out what was, indeed, what.
We can debate whether the incident was worthy of red or yellow or just a free kick, but it's not the foul and the red card that's most newsworthy. It's how things played out during those 90 seconds, including what fans in the stadium were allowed to see on BMO’s video board.
MLS allows clubs to show continuous action and replays of controversial incidents, with a couple of caveats: Controversial plays may not be replayed until the referee has made a decision and play has resumed. Furthermore, if it is deemed (by the home team's video production staff) that showing such a replay would “incite” fans -- whatever that might mean -- it should not be shown. If a replay does rile up the fans, all replays should be halted.
The Asad/Zavaleta incident was played on BMO's video board while Gantar was deliberating with the other officials. The fans started jeering, Jozy Altidore sprinted 30 yards to make sure Gantar saw what he'd seen, and Gantar soon after went to his back pocket. Asad was done.
If might have appeared that Gantar had been swayed by the crowd, but that's likely fantasy. He's not allowed to use video evidence, not yet at least, and MLS likely will deal this week with TFC's video staff.
Video replays of major events -- goals, penalty kicks, red cards and making sure punishment goes to the correct offender -- is coming to MLS and to soccer around the world, possibly as early as next year. What we witnessed in Toronto, with a few of the details altered, will soon be commonplace around the globe.
The International Football Association Board, the independent guardian of the game's “Laws,” last year presented its “video assistant referee initiative,” designed to add video replay, like that already in use in the NFL and Major League Baseball, to the referee's toolbag.
MLS jumped at the chance to become one of the leagues to test the system, and it was in use during some USL matches last season as well as in 29 preseason matches leading to the 2017 campaign. There's a VAR official at work in every MLS game this year, but he's “offline”: He does not communicate with the referee.
MLS is hoping that will change after the All-Star Game, and we'll see if it does. The hope is that goals that shouldn't be waved off by an errant offside flag will stand, that all penalties will be justly awarded, or that simulation won't lead to red cards. Maybe that will be so. Nobody thinks the NFL or MLB gets everything right with their replays, so why should we expect MLS will?
One of the primary concerns is how stoppages to view footage and determine the correct calls will impact the flow of the game. Will it alter momentum? Will there be long stretches of nothing going on while everyone looks up at the booth, like in the NFL? Will we see a serious increase in stoppage time?
Saturday's example was most illuminative. The time between the whistles -- the first to blow play dead, the second to restart the game after Asad (and, subsequently, ejected assistant coach Jorge Theiler) exited -- was 3 minutes, 38 seconds. Ninety seconds to make a decision, 128 to square everything away.
Expect that or longer once VAR comes into play. Just keep the video off the stadium's screens until that time has passed.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench