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Return of The 3rd Yellow: The 2019 VAR Spectacular

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VAR can be a wonderful thing in soccer. Maybe not as wonderful as a Mark Geiger laws of the game explanation montage, but more communication from officials in-game regarding reviewed plays would go a long way to making the system better.

MLS: Montreal Impact at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure if this column ever said, “I’d be back”, but we’re back! Yes, I know there’s a lot of people who want answers to that mess up in Toronto, and we’ll get to that, but we have a year of housekeeping to clean up with regards to VAR in general first.

Right now, VAR is still in its infancy in soccer, and I will die on the hill that says VAR is far better than goal-line technology (GLT) for a very simple reason. GLT only tells us if the ball crossed the goal line, under the crossbar, and between the goal posts - I.e., the ball entered the goal. GLT does not tell anyone if the ball was scored legally or by a player in an offside position or by an attacking player’s hand.

VAR however, is far from perfect and there are still issues that FIFA, the IFAB, leagues, and referees are working through. The biggest problem I have at the moment with VAR has nothing to do with the fact that VAR is reviewing calls and still getting them wrong. I expect that to happen, at least occasionally and not half the time, but video replay is not perfect nor will it be able to provide concrete evidence that every call is correct all the time.

Rather, VAR suffers simple matter of communication, or lack thereof. Mainly, fans and broadcasters have no idea sometimes what is being reviewed and why. In my opinion it detracts from the experience of watching soccer on TV and even in person when the center referee stands around for 60-90 seconds and then wanders over to the replay screen without telling anyone what is happening.

I want everyone to meet a couple of my heroes, first of NFL fame, Mr. Ed “Guns” Hochuli:

And now Wes McCauley from the NHL:

And bonus coverage from Australian referee Jared Gillet who refereed his last A-League game and will be moving to England’s second tier Championship to further his career:

Two of these videos are of course beyond the scope of what referees would normally do on a broadcast but those videos are here to reinforce a larger point regarding VAR in soccer, and particularly in MLS:

We need more on field communication like we’re seeing in these videos.

A few weeks ago for the start of the MLS season, SB Nation did a preview regarding rule changes myself and other writers would like to see. I’d like to expand a bit on that take as well as a couple of other points as VAR becomes more of a regular occurrence in MLS and soccer in general.

REFEREES SHOULD EXPLAIN VAR RULINGS AND REVIEWS

Video replay reviews are far more natural in a sport where the clock stops seemingly every thirty seconds. Football has incomplete passes and out of bounds plays, baseball has no clock, basketball and hockey have tons of natural stoppages, but soccer’s running clock makes reviews a little odd.

But that doesn’t mean for the sake of speeding up or returning to game action that referees shouldn’t explain VAR decisions, especially ones where they walk off the field to the monitor. I think it is perfectly acceptable when a call is confirmed and play is held up for maybe 15-30 seconds, say an offside ruling or penalty is confirmed quickly, that the referee reinforcing the original call and getting on with play is great.

But when it takes something like two minutes for the VAR to figure out if a review is needed and the center referee to wander over to the replay screen...I think at this point the fans, both in stadium and watching on TV, need an explanation as to what is happening. Even quickly announcing a simple call that is confirmed can go along way to improving the review process and improving knowledge of the rules.

Again I’ll go back to the example from the SBN Preview article, here is a review for what everyone thought was a foul on Seattle’s Kelvin Leerdam for undercutting an Montreal Impact player. The field camera angle clearly shows Leerdam striking his opponent in the face but naturally the broadcast and a lot of others assumed live the review was for the foul.

Here’s how to fix that play: Ismail Elfath is in the middle here. Before going to review, he announces to the stadium/everyone that VAR has initiated a review for “violent conduct AFTER the foul on Seattle #18.” Now, with this simple sentence, we all know what the review is for and where to look in the replay sequence for the infraction. After the review, Elfath simply needs to announce the review has confirmed the violent conduct, put the red card in the air (perhaps not even display it to Leerdam, just to the camera), and have Leerdam march off.

These explanations would be very beneficial to the fans and media because sometimes the rules, or more importantly the current interpretations, are a little confusing to understand while watching live. Plus, admit it, all of you would love to see a Mark Geiger montage of explaining calls just like Hochuli above and now he’s retired and has robbed us of that glorious moment.

Damn it all...happy retirement from off field duties Mr. Geiger.

VAR REVIEWS NEED TO BE INITIATED SOONER AND CLEARER

If the center referee needs to look at the monitor for whatever reason, that process between the VAR officials and the man in the middle should not take longer than 30 seconds. I know there’s a handful of replay angles to look at but players and fans shouldn’t be waiting minutes for VAR to watch the replays only to then signal the center official that they need to look at something.

Going back to the confusion from that Seattle-Montreal play from earlier, there should be very clear steps that occur on every call from an official that goes to VAR. First, everyone needs to know the initial call, the proverbial “the call on the field is this, and the play is under review” should be announced any time VAR is checking for something regarding a major incident like a goal or card.

Initiating these first steps regarding a review, even if the center referee never looks at the monitor, is far better than the referee just standing there with his finger in his ear for like 90 seconds. I hate this, it is by far the most annoying thing about the current state of VAR.

Please, for the love of Twellman, just tell everyone that VAR is looking at the play. We all know the center referee is talking to the VAR booth, I don’t care if you’re only stalling for time, have the center referee announce the call on the field and that VAR is checking it.

Then before signalling ready for play, just tell everyone the call on the field stands and move on. I can not stand the 90 seconds of boredom and nothingness while the broadcasters just put the camera on the referee and they stand there. Lie to me while you stall for time, make it interesting, tell me what you’re looking at in some capacity.

The biggest problem with VAR right now, quite frankly, is it makes for bad TV. That’s not the fault of the referees but rather the system they’ve been told to work in. There’s no communication to the fans or broadcasters and whatever information given to the players and coaches is likely limited as the emphasis is to return to playing action. The current process seems drawn out and far too long when compared to the return of information gathered from the review.

VAR can be nearly 100% accurate but it will never be successful in the world of soccer until that accuracy can be conveyed to the masses via whatever communication means necessary.

VAR OFFICIALS SHOULD HAVE THE POWER TO MAKE CALLS ON THE FIELD

If we are to believe that VAR is there to protect and enforce “clear and obvious errors” then VAR should simply have the power to tell the guy in the middle that the call is wrong and we need to change it.

A referee crew is a team, we shouldn’t need the center referee to look at an offside call in order to reverse it. If it’s something obvious, it should just be changed and it shouldn’t take the full process of the person in the middle jogging over to the replay monitor for that to happen.

However, the collaboration that goes on between the VAR and on-field officials is very important, but I would like to see that communication in action. Like the Gillet video from Australia above, most of the time the referees know what they’re doing and get things right, and do so in a very efficient manner. Unless we’re going to have microphones on the referees or access to their headset communications for broadcasters during the review process, we’re going to have to settle for the Hochuli style of announcing calls to the masses.

But I also feel like there are times where having the center referee look at his previous call only to uphold it seems like a odd and/or wasted process regarding the oversight or authority the VAR has or should have. The center referee might be responsible for the final say regarding calls and enforcement of cards, etc., but referees are not infallible and the VAR booth needs to have some authority as well.

Random note, I’ve been watching a lot of cricket lately (check to see if you get the “Willow” channel on cable, it’s great) and am completely stoked for the 2019 Cricket World Cup hosted by England and Wales.

Cricket has a fantastic way they use their “third official” who handles replays: players can initiate a challenge review potential wickets (the baseball equivalent to outs) and the officials on the field can go straight to review for things like run outs where the timing is very close to call. And their review process makes for fantastic television as well, with a very high level of production regarding camera angles for bowlers/batters/runners, audio monitoring to see if the ball has struck the bat, and computer modelling for ball tracking to see if a bowler would have hit the wickets on a delivery. The third official in cricket makes this call, relays it to the on-field umpire, who then makes the call for the broadcast/stadium.

This is not dissimilar to perhaps the replay center that the NHL uses in hockey, where officials watch the replay and confirm or overturn the call and then convey said ruling to the on-ice crew to announce the decision. The Laws of the Game in soccer currently give the center referee the final authority or say for decisions, obviously with input from his assistants and now VAR.

However, I see no reason why soccer can not have a similar system where the center referee goes straight upstairs to VAR for a ruling. In particular for plays where maybe the referee’s view was obstructed for a collision inside the penalty area. There’s a coming together in the box, the referee doesn’t have a great view of the play, blows the whistle, and immediately signals for review. Sometimes this might result in nothing, a boundary call like a goal kick or corner, but I think instead of have to make guess work on an initial call, going straight to a replay to sort it out isn’t a bad idea and in some cases is probably faster.

VAR is a tremendous asset for the sport of soccer, just like all forms of replay are for most sports. Technology is a wonderful thing that is there to enhance the experience and accuracy of our favorite sports...most of the time. It can’t be perfect nor should we expect it to be. There are plenty of times where a call will be made on the field, it will be looked at, and the ruling will stand as called simply because there’s not enough evidence to overturn or change the call. This is not a bug or problem with VAR or replay in general, but there are times when replay can not give us the definitive answers we want as fans.

Referee me loves VAR for the way that it can improve the game of soccer and assist referees as the laws and game evolve and, quite frankly, make a lot of usually simple things to the naked eye incredibly freaking difficult to understand. Writer/media me loathes every second of watching a review unfold because there’s little to no communication before, during, or after the replay process which is a shame.

Fans and broadcasters and generally understanding of the laws and rules of the sports they’re watching and are too often left in the dark by the VAR process and what exactly is being reviewed in the first place. Sometimes it’s an abstract rule or interpretation that needs a more lengthy review or a simple call off the ball that needs to be disciplined.

Either way, the current flaw of VAR is not that it doesn’t work or isn’t successful, but those successes are not communicated in a way that enhances the sport.

When the fans, media, players, etc., are all on the same page before, during, and after a VAR decision, that is when the system will truly shine and benefit the sport the way I know it can.