Breaking down the first weekend of Video Review in MLS

After months of anticipation and speculation, we’ve finally gotten the first glimpse at how Video Review is going to work in MLS. 

And it didn’t take long for the process to come into play on its first matchnight. Just under 80 minutes, to be exact.

The moment came in one of Saturday night's opening matches, the Philadelphia Union's 3-1 home victory over FC Dallas – and because the first time was always going to be a big deal, let's unpack the sequence (watch above), starting in the 79th minute with the Union leading 3-0:

  • 78:01—Union goalkeeper John McCarthy charges out and slides to deny Dallas forward Cristian Colman, and the two collide. McCarthy – already sore from a previous collision with Dallas' Matt Hedges – grimaces in pain.
  • 78:03—Maximiliano Urruti runs onto the loose ball and fires into the net, triggering protests from Philadelphia players that Colman fouled McCarthy and the goal shouldn't count.
  • 78:17—Referee Ricardo Salazar points to his ear to indicate that Video Assistant Referee (VAR) Hilario Grajeda is performing the routine check on the goal (one of the four reviewable match-changing incidents in Video Review). A replay shows a potential foul as Colman's foot strikes McCarthy in the midsection.
  • 79:21—Salazar signals for the Video Review and heads to the sideline to watch the replay.
  • 80:07—Salazar signals the Video Review process complete, calling a foul on Colman and waving off the goal.

The Video Review process in this instance took just 46 seconds. From the time of the foul itself to the goal call being overturned, only a bit more than two minutes elapsed. I'm in agreement with Philadelphia forward C.J. Sapong: That’s not unreasonable, especially in light of how long reviews can take in other sports.

And while it didn’t affect the outcome of the match – the Union were in control for most of it – the moment was still significant because of its potential standings implications down the stretch of the season.

For FC Dallas, who still hold hope for a second straight Supporters’ Shield, the total goals tiebreaker is no small thing. For both teams – especially for the Union, who are trying to climb back above the playoff line in the East – goal differential, which serves as the second tiebreaker, could also come into play.

So, yes, Video Review worked the first time it was used. And one day later it would come through in the clutch once again.

Zardes goal waved off

The only other Video Review of Week 22 unfolded in Portland on Sunday, as the Timbers hosted the LA Galaxy for a brunch date at Providence Park.

With the Western Conference playoff contenders tied at 1-1 after trading early goals, Gyasi Zardes appeared to push the visiting Galaxy ahead after reacting quickest amid the chaos in the aftermath of a Galaxy set-piece delivery into PTFC's goalmouth. But just a shade over two minutes after the LA Homegrown's tap-in hit the back of the net, referee Drew Fischer confirmed that Video Review had caught a handball infraction on Zardes as he met Ema Boateng's header back into the fray. 

Real kudos are due to the entire refereeing crew for spotting, evaluating and deciding on this key nuance of a bang-bang play. The handball was so easily missed that many, even ESPN's play-by-play team, initially had to guess at the reason for the review, some wondering whether a subtle push had been delivered somewhere before the ball's arrival. The handball offense was officially communicated after the Video Review was complete. 

Not only did Zardes have his go-ahead goal waved off, but he was also booked with a yellow card. That, too, could be a talking point depending on Fischer's interpretation of the play. But given how influential that goal would've likely been on a game that ended 3-1 in Portland's favor, chalk this one up as a moment in the sun for the new technology.

And while the other nine weekend matches also featured the routine checks on the four match-changing incidents outlined in the Video Review protocol, none of the checks detected a clear and obvious error to trigger a Video Review. But there were three plays in particular that triggered plenty of discussion.

Foul before a goal?

At Toyota Park, a sequence of play in Chicago's 4-1 victory over New England saw Juninho score to put the Fire ahead for good in the 39th minute (watch above). But some 20 seconds before the goal was scored, Chicago forward David Accam clattered into defender Andrew Farrell, but referee Silviu Petrescu didn't call a foul on Accam.

While the play was checked by the VAR as in the case of every goal, there was no Video Review ordered by Petrescu because the potential foul incident did not occur in the attacking phase of play leading up to the goal. So Video Review was not warranted, and the goal stood.

Handball in the box?

It seemed we were on the verge of a Video Review in the 65th minute of Colorado's 2-2 draw with Vancouver after Whitecaps defender Andrew Jacobson lunged in the penalty area to knock a Rapids corner kick over the endline with his shoulder. While referee Nima Saghafi ruled it a corner kick, Rapids players wanted a penalty kick for a hand ball. 

VAR Fotis Bazakos checked the play as a potential penalty-kick incident (one of the four reviewable match-changing incidents in Video Review), but the replays didn't show a clear-and-obvious error made by head referee Nima Saghafi, who did not signal for the Video Review.

Obstruction on goal?

And in the final match of the night, San Jose's 2-1 home victory against Columbus Crew SC, referee Alan Kelly held up kickoff after Adam Jahn's 75th-minute goal for Crew SC in order to give VAR Jon Freemon enough time to check the goal for a possible obstruction by Ola Kamara on Earthquakes goalkeeper David Bingham.

Here, too, replays did not show a clear and obvious error and there was no Video Review.

So, fear not, comment-section warriors: Video Review still leaves plenty of room for discussion, disagreement and outright argument.

In the end, final decisions still come down to the people with the whistles, the flags, the stoppage-time boards, and now the video monitors. Those things are all tools, and it still takes human beings – with all their persistent preferences, proclivities and imperfections – to wield them.