MLS sees pros of video re­play

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - KEVIN BAX­TER kevin.bax­ter@la­times.com Twit­ter: @kbax­ter11

Howard Webb is widely rec­og­nized as one of the all-time top soc­cer ref­er­ees. But even he re­mains haunted by a call he got wrong.

Af­ter Nigel de Jong of the Nether­lands flat­tened Spain’s Xabi Alonso early in the 2010 World Cup fi­nal, Webb gave De Jong a yel­low card, al­though re­plays showed a studs-up kick to the chest that de­served a red card. Nearly a bil­lion TV view­ers world­wide knew the ref­eree had made a mis­take but Webb, the only per­son who could fix that, didn’t have ac­cess to the video.

“I would ab­so­lutely over­turn that call,” Webb said. “That was an ex­am­ple of clear er­ror.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence helped make Webb a vo­cal pro­po­nent of video re­play in soc­cer and the per­fect man to im­ple­ment the use of video as­sis­tant ref­er­ees, or VAR, in MLS. Last week­end, the league be­came one of the first in the world to im­ple­ment the video re­view ini­tia­tive, in which a fifth of­fi­cial, sta­tioned in a video booth, is tasked with iden­ti­fy­ing clearly ques­tion­able calls in four ar­eas: goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards and mis­taken iden­tity.

Ref­er­ees un­der­went train­ing on the ini­tia­tive and MLS briefed play­ers and coaches with each of the 22 teams on how it’s sup­posed to work. The Gal­axy had to wait only 12 min­utes into their first game un­der VAR to be af­fected, with Gyasi Zardes’ go-ahead goal in last Sun­day’s game in Port­land get­ting taken off the board af­ter ref­eree Drew Fis­cher con­cluded from re­plays that Zardes han­dled the ball be­fore boot­ing it into the net.

Even though his team lost the goal, the mo­men­tum and the game, coach Sigi Sch­mid re­mains a sup­porter of the new sys­tem.

“Video re­play is fine,” he said. “It’s im­por­tant to get the calls cor­rect. And it cer­tainly got the call cor­rect.”

MLS is the last of the five ma­jor pro­fes­sional leagues in the U.S. to adopt video re­play but, un­like other sports, in MLS teams will not be able to re­quest a re­view. And soc­cer, also un­like other sports, has no nat­u­ral stop­pages in play, so Webb says the aim will be to get the calls right while avoid­ing re­peated or lengthy re­views that would dis­rupt the flow of a game.

“The chal­lenge is in­tro­duc­ing this in a way that doesn’t im­pact on the thing that makes soc­cer at­trac­tive to a lot of peo­ple,” Webb said. “The way it ebbs and flows, that’s some­thing we don’t want to break. But also de­cid­ing what are the things we are go­ing to use it for and what are the things we’re go­ing to leave alone.”

The MLS pro­gram op­er­ates un­der the pro­to­col of the In­ter­na­tional Foot­ball Assn. Board — keeper of the sport’s rules — which lim­its VAR as­sis­tance to four ar­eas it con­sid­ers “game-chang­ing” sit­u­a­tions. In each in­stance, re­views will be lim­ited not only to the spe­cific play but also to the “at­tack­ing phase of play” that led to the ques­tion­able call.

When the VAR of­fi­cial de­ter­mines a play needs to be checked, he or she will alert the cen­ter ref­eree through an ear­piece. The ref­eree may hold play dur­ing the check or could al­low play to con­tinue un­til the check has been com­pleted. If re­plays show a clear er­ror may have oc­curred, the video re­play of­fi­cial will rec­om­mend the ref­eree take a look, a sug­ges­tion that can be ig­nored by al­low­ing play to go on or ac­cepted by us­ing both hands to trace a rec­tan­gu­lar TV-like shape in the air, in­di­cat­ing a stop­page for a re­view.

At that point the cen­ter ref­eree, the only of­fi­cial who can over­rule the orig­i­nal call, will step to the side of the field and check the broad­cast feed. In the first week­end of video re­view, ac­cord­ing to MLS, there were 112 checks but only two re­views, the one in the Gal­axy game and one that erased a goal for FC Dal­las.

The sys­tem is be­ing used on a two-year trial and was game tested in the U.S. in the sec­ond-tier USL. It will be used in the top Ger­man, Ital­ian, Aus­tralian and South Korean leagues, among other com­pe­ti­tions. FIFA tried it in the 2016 Club World Cup, the U-20 World Cup and this sum­mer’s Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup, where it got mixed re­views.

Be­cause many of those leagues be­gin play later in the year, MLS de­layed im­ple­men­ta­tion of the pro­gram un­til it was more than half­way through its sched­ule. That leaves the league play­ing its reg­u­lar sea­son un­der two sets of rules, open­ing the pos­si­bil­ity a team could not get a play­off berth be­cause of a dis­al­lowed goal that would have counted be­fore the adop­tion of the VAR.

“I would have started in Jan­uary be­cause of that ex­act rea­son,” said Tay­lor Twell­man, a for­mer league MVP who is an MLS an­a­lyst for ESPN. “Ev­ery­thing should start Jan. 1 so ev­ery­body’s on an even play­ing field.”

Still, Twell­man likes the sys­tem, with one other reser­va­tion. VAR of­fi­cials are lim­ited to an­gles cap­tured by the broad­cast­ers of each game and those can dif­fer since ESPN and Fox reg­u­larly use 13 cam­eras and lo­cal broad­cast­ers may use fewer.

De­spite the im­per­fec­tions, Webb said he be­lieves most of­fi­cials are also wel­com­ing of the sys­tem, which the IFAB could im­ple­ment world­wide if the trial pe­riod goes well.

“It’s a chance to take com­fort from the fact that you’re not go­ing to make big mis­takes,” he said. “Play­ers make mis­takes. That is very much part of the game. Of­fi­cials make mis­takes. But if we can find a way to avoid those mis­takes, then why not in­tro­duce them?”

Rick Bowmer As­so­ci­ated Press

HOWARD WEBB is over­see­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of video as­sis­tant ref­eree, started last week by MLS.

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