The approaching 2021 season will be the fifth to use video review, which includes a video assistant referee who communicates with the on-field officials when there might be a play that merits review. (VAR was originally short for video assistant referee, but has emerged as an all-encompassing term for video review). Although there are hiccups, there is also a consensus replay has improved the overall product. Perhaps this owes to fans who are familiar with replay review from other North American sports. But there is also the unique manner in which MLS uses replay.
Former English Premier League and World Cup referee Howard Webb has overseen the use of VAR in MLS as general manager of the Professional Referee Organization. He identified and explained some of those differences during a media panel Monday, including the two most obvious to followers of the European game.
- MLS referees always visit the review area during reviews
- MLS does not use virtual offside line technology
The preference to send the official to a screen for all reviews, Webb said, is a reflection of the preference of MLS fans, but also has on-field benefits.
“It puts the referee in a good situation to manage the players once they’ve seen it for themselves,” Webb said. “It also emphasizes to the stadium audience that the review is taking place. They can see the unfolding process playing out in front of them.”
There might also be a sense that putting the final decision in the care solely of the man in the middle removes an aura of Big Brother.
“We feel that, ultimately we want the referee to be the final decision-maker in all cases. And it works for us,” Webb said.
As for the virtual offside line, some observers might prefer that MLS doesn’t use the technology, which critics say can violate the spirit of the offside law. But the league’s abstention actually owes to concerns the technology might not be equally effective at all league venues, including some that were built primarily with American football or baseball in mind.
“The configuration of the cameras within our stadiums doesn’t really lend itself at the moment to the implementation of those lines,” Webb said. “We have looked at them in the last few months to see whether or not they would be something we could utilize consistently across the league and across all games, and our conclusion was that it’s not.”
Back in 2017, MLS was the first domestic league in the world to use VAR during the latter third of the season. It could also be one of the first to pilot giving TV viewers a live look into the video review process on a more permanent basis, Webb said. During several matches at the MLS is Back Tournament last summer, viewers were able to see replays match officials watched in real time and listen to their audio communications.
“We’re working with the International (Football Association) Board and FIFA around potentially looking at doing that again in the future as a pilot,” Webb said. “We’re also speaking to other federations around the world that are interested in maybe also looking at doing that in their competitions.”
Webb remains aware of the controversies that grip VAR elsewhere, particularly in his native England. But he believes some of those issues will resolve as leagues get better at using the technology. He cites examples within MLS. According to internal figures, from 2019 to 2020, the league cut down on the length of reviews by an average of eight seconds. It arrived at the correct result in 93% of replay reviews, and overall has reached 98.5% accuracy in the situations that are eligible for review.
“We’ve tried to implement it in MLS in a way that really does achieve what it was set out to achieve,” Webb said. “And that’s a maximum benefit to a minimum interference. … Good officiating starts on the field of play. It starts with referees making good calls based on all of the considerations, and that feel for the game. And the VAR is there as a safety net, should the official not be able to make a good call.”