FC Dallas thought they had clawed a goal back. Maxi Urruti reacted quickest to a loose ball in the box, and found the back of the net to give the Texans a lifeline against the Philadelphia Union.
On any other weekend previously this season, the goal probably would have stood. FC Dallas may well have mounted a late comeback on the back of it. This weekend, however, Major League Soccer debuted its new VAR system. Urruti’s goal was its first case study.
Indeed, replays showed that Cristian Colman made contact with Philadelphia goalkeeper John McCarthy before Urruti took his shot. The decision, which took just under two minutes to be made, was ultimately the correct one. Incidents like this will become commonplace, but this one marked the start of a new era. The era in which referees finally have some help.
MLS has taken on the mantel as something of a testing ground for the global game with regards to VAR. The system was trialled at this summer’s Confederations Cup, – and in Australia’s A-League – with varying degrees of success. There was confusion, there was an element of farce, with a run of botched calls calling into question whether football was ready for the implementation of such technology.
Much of that confusion remains. Sunday’s Dutch Super Cup game between Feyenoord and Vitesse Arnhem, for instance, descended into chaos when the referee took nearly 90 seconds to first turn down a penalty for a challenge in the box, allow play to continue until the opposition side scored on the counter, disallow that goal, and then pull play back and finally award the penalty with the help of the VAR.
Clarification is required on when the VAR can and can’t be used, but MLS might be where the technology is truly refined and perfected for the mass market. North American soccer, through the Professional Referee Organisation (PRO), has invested big in its VAR programme. Former Premier League referee Howard Webb was hired to become MLS’s head of VAR operations back in February, with tests conducted at 90 different MLS games up until the point of the system’s roll out this weekend.
“If it involves the award of a penalty – so the referee gets conned, player goes down, no contact at all – the VAR can check it,” Webb explained in June, providing an example of how VAR will work. “The VAR sees that it’s a clear dive. He will recommend the player has committed simulation and should be cautioned. [The referee] would go back and cancel the penalty. He’d award a yellow card to the player and he’d restart the game with an indirect free kick.
“There would be an immediate punishment which is miles better than retrospective action because that player would not otherwise get the punishment on the day. It’s better than having no VAR because the penalty would stand otherwise, wrongly. We can accept there might be the odd occasion when a free kick’s given wrongly on the edge of the area and leads to a goal. That might not feel right, but I understand why; we’re not checking all free kicks [to protect the flow of the game].”
It’s crucially important that MLS gets the implementation of its VAR system right. This is an experiment that goes beyond North American soccer. While the technology has been tested and trialled in a number of one-off games around the world, as well as the Confederations Cup, MLS, along with the A-League, is the first division to permanently adopt VAR. Should it be a success, a global roll out would surely follow not before too long. Flop, however, and a necessary progression of the sport would be stunted.
Of course, there are side issues that come with the use of VAR. Nobody, not even Webb, pretends that the technology comes without its challenges. For example, will there now be more pressure on the MLS disciplinary committee? What happens if the VAR makes a blunder during a game – will the committee be prepared to overrule, therefore undermining PRO that oversees VAR?
Poor camera angles (which are frequently an issue in the North American game) can hinder the ability of the VAR to make the correct decision. MLS has also admitted that a decrease in goals could occur as a result of VAR, although the point could be made that the goals that stand will be purely legitimate.
Despite extensive testing, there will be blips and blotches over the coming weeks and months. At one point or another, there will be controversy. Whether or not MLS learns from that, though, will go a long way to deciding VAR’s place in the game. It’s not just North American soccer types who will be watching closely. This is in the interest of all fans.
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