In the sixth minute of New England’s disappointing 3-3 road draw with Orlando City SC, Cristian Penilla found himself racing past defender Victor “PC” Giro straight toward goal with the ball at his feet. Almost a full stride behind Penilla, and sensing he had no way to slow down the speedy Revolution winger, PC grabbed both of Penilla’s arms, causing the Ecuadorian to tumble to the ground.
Easy foul by PC, right? Yes! However, the Brazilian defender was the only Orlando City field player left to stop Penilla on his way to a 1-v-1 with the goalkeeper. That means he denied the Revolution first-year player an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DGSO) which is, by rule, a red card offense. Yet, after some deliberation by the referees and bantering by manager Brad Friedel and his players, PC only received a yellow card. It could be that since Penilla was well outside the eighteen-yard box when the infraction occurred, the officials determined he was too far from goal for the DGSO decision.
Revolution TV analyst and former Premier League striker Paul Mariner was apoplectic at the non-red card call. Replays easily confirmed what we all saw in live action. Somehow, though, just the yellow was issued, making it seem like a hometown non-call early in the match, one that would have given New England a huge advantage if called as we thought. Afterwards, Friedel took the high road, offering only a general assessment of referee performance by saying he "didn't cover himself in glory."
Such an obvious infraction readily seen on replay begs the question: With the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) now a fifth official in all MLS matches, why wasn’t he asked to take a look at that same replay? VAR can be used to confirm or overturn the showing or not showing of straight red cards for violent conduct or serious foul play. However, this clearly wasn’t the case here. When it comes to DGSO, VAR can only be used to negate a red card if given. Since one was never issued, VAR was handcuffed and thus unavailable for advice.
This is one aspect where VAR operation falls woefully short. Why on earth couldn't video review have been used on that particular play? There was a stoppage in the match, so no additional time would have been added. There was even a delay in issuing the yellow card. If coaches were allowed to make one or two “challenges” of a questionable call or non-call — in this case, the yellow card vs a clear red card — as is permitted in other sports that use video review, Friedel probably would have done so for this event, even though it was very early in the match.
Malpractice of VAR has often been criticized in MLS, and I can certainly see why. However, it seems as if some of this criticism has been brought on by the league itself. Why couldn’t Hilario Grajeda, the head official in this match, be allowed to consult VAR for such a play? Surely he saw what we all saw, a possible or likely DGSO. Why are the rules for VAR requests so narrow and strict? Can’t the head referee be given a bit more freedom in seeking out video assistance?
Better yet, why can’t the fifth official, the VAR, be given more autonomy in his or her role? After all, the individual is a professional referee, no? If they see a rather obvious infraction, why can’t they notify the head official? Okay, I know we don’t want to disrupt game flow, so maybe we limit these VAR inputs to normal stoppages like free kicks or injuries. That might be a happy medium. It may not really matter, though, as it seems most questionable calls or non-calls are associated with stoppages in play anyway.
The Revs may have lost out on a full three points in Orlando due to their continued defensive weaknesses or mental breakdowns, but I submit that it probably shouldn’t have even come to that, as Orlando should have been down to 10 men in the sixth minute. And a properly-utilized VAR might have made that a reality.