As most readers are aware, Saturday marks the resumption of league play after the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target, the unofficial opening of “the stretch run,” that crucial period where playoff places are earned and lost and would-be MLS Cup champions make their case.
It’s also the dawn of a bold new epoch for both MLS and the sport of soccer as a whole.
The Video Review system is set to make its full debut on Saturday, after some three years of conception, preparation and exhaustive training by referees and league officials working in cooperation with the International Football Association Board, better known as IFAB, the august body that sets the Laws of the Game.
By now you’ve probably read something on this site about Video Review and the VARs (Video Assistant Referees) who are at the center of the process. We’ve looked at frequently asked questions, dived deep into the Video Review training process and profiled the person leading the way on Video Review for the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), Howard Webb.
Some people are eagerly welcoming it. Others dread what they see as an adulteration of the sport’s fluid rhythm (a fear, by the way, that has been explicitly and exhaustively addressed by Webb and others at the heart of this process).
But I can’t help feeling that many simply have yet to fully comprehend what a landmark moment this is, whether it’s due to engaging distractions like the Gold Cup and the All-Star Game, or the simple reality of human nature that most of us don’t pay full attention to topics like these until they directly affect our lives – or in this case, our teams.
That day is here.
PRO, IFAB and everyone else involved with Video Review have gone to great lengths to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Webb delivered the latest of his many public education sessions to a group of journalists at Tuesday’s MLS Homegrown Game at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, during which time he hammered home two mantras of this project, phrases that every MLS fan should probably commit to memory now:
- “Minimum interference, maximum benefit”
- “Clear and obvious errors”
These reflect the overarching philosophy at work here. The use of Video Review is limited to only four typically match-changing incidents: Goals, penalty-kick decisions, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity where the wrong player is cautioned, ejected and the like. And only objectively incorrect decisions will be reviewed.
“We’re not here to change the way the game is played,” said Webb. “We’re not here to re-referee the game, either. We’re here to give an additional tool to the officials to deal with clear and obvious errors that are sometimes made, or things that are missed.”
The VARs who will begin full duty in this weekend’s MLS matches have been trained to ask themselves – and by extension, the referees on the field – “was the decision clearly wrong” rather than merely “was the decision correct?”
Webb used the example of a handball infraction in the penalty box: VARs are not intended to interpret whether a situation was “ball to hand,” “hand to ball” and so forth. They are there for much more obvious mistakes, like a chested ball that is mistakenly whistled as a handball.
Over hundreds upon hundreds of hours of training and dry runs, PRO has calculated that Video Reviews add an average of just 1 minute and 16 seconds to a game, time which will be factored into the fourth officials’ estimate of added time. And reviewable situations took place 0.36 times per 90 minutes, meaning one every three games.
But still, even if those numbers hold when the technology is fully implemented in the cauldron of MLS play, it means that sooner or later, Video Review will inevitably feature in at least one or two games per week. It might even change the final result of your team’s next game.
Like Neil Armstrong descending the ladder on Apollo 11’s lunar module back in 1969, today MLS stands perched on the precipice of a potentially revolutionary new chapter in the Beautiful Game.
Sometimes you’ll love Video Review, and sometimes you’ll hate it. But we’re here because the sport needs it, and everything this correspondent has seen suggests it will be better for it.