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How video review will affect MLS

It’s going to be better than you think

MLS: IFAB Workshop Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

In my occasional series on refereeing issues, to date I have focused on events that happened in past games. In this article, we’re going to look at something that hasn’t actually occurred yet: video review.

On August 5th, the first game date after the All-Star break, MLS will begin live tests of video review in all game situations. This is part of FIFA’s ongoing assessment of the concept, which is also being tested in several other leagues around the world. It has already been used in Australia’s A-League, the recent Confederations Cup, and will be used in the upcoming Bundesliga and Serie A seasons, and is expected to be fully implemented in next year’s World Cup. It has in fact already been in testing in MLS and the USL, but without affecting on-field actions in MLS.

MLS is the first really serious test, though, and extensive preparations have been made to make sure its implementation here is as seamless as possible. The first important decision in this process was the hiring of Howard Webb as head of video operations for the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), who provide refs for all the major US soccer leagues. For those who don’t know, Webb was a long-time Premier League referee, and is often considered one of the best referees of all time. He was the first official to referee the UEFA Champions League final and the World Cup final in the same year. PRO gets panned for a lot of things, but this was an excellent hire.

Video review is going to bring a few new terms to soccer. The first is VAR, which stands for Video Assistant Referee, who will be the official responsible for monitoring the actual video. Then there’s the Video Operations Room (where the VARs will work, obviously) and the referee review area. Next are “checks” and “reviews”, and then there is “attacking phase of play”. I’ll explain these as we go.

The underlying maxim for video review is minimum interference for maximum benefit. That is, the objective is to keep the flow of the game going as much as possible with limited interruption. In fact, tests so far have added an average of 76 seconds to total game time, which really isn’t much. This is good news, especially for American fans, who are already used to video replays in football taking up inordinate amounts of time and creating unnecessary opportunities to sell more beer that no self-respecting soccer fan would want to drink.

That being said, video review will be in action during the entire game. Players, coaches and fans, and in fact even the referees on the field, will be largely unaware of it. The way it will work is that in the Video Operation Room, the VAR will have access to every camera feed the broadcaster for the game is providing. It will in fact look very much like the broadcaster’s own production room. The VAR will be watching the game as it progresses, waiting for a play that is potentially reviewable. When one occurs, he will perform a “check”. That is, he will assess whether an actual “review” of the play is needed. If he tells the center referee that a review is needed, the ref will signal that by drawing a rectangle in the air, and moving to the referee review area (often under a tent) at the side of the pitch. There, TVs will be available for him to look at and the VAR will provide him the camera feeds he needs to make a decision. However, the VAR will only do so if a “clear and obvious error” was made. Alternatively, the referee can request a review if he believes one is needed, and will signal it the same way.

Note that all of this can only during a dead ball situation, that is, a natural break in play. If the referee has already restarted play, no review can occur, except for an incident involving a red card for violent conduct. This is similar to football, in which a review cannot be requested if the ball has been snapped for the next play.

Also like football, not all plays are reviewable. There are four areas where video review applies: goals, penalty kicks, red cards and mistaken identity. Note that offside is not in and of itself a review situation. Here’s how it will work in each area:


All goals will be subject to review. This is fine, as a goal creates an automatic break in play (unless a goal was not incorrectly awarded and play has continued, but that is also reviewable at the next break in play). Everything leading up to the goal is subject to review. The is where the “attacking phase of play” (APP) comes into effect. If the scoring team committed a foul (including an unidentified offside) in the build-up to the goal, then the goal can be nullified and play will restart as appropriate to the infraction. However, if a free kick was incorrectly awarded and the kick results in a goal, the offense for which the kick was awarded is not subject to review. Additionally, if the kick itself was taken incorrectly (e.g., with a non-stationary ball), that also is not subject to review.

Penalty Kicks

Penalty kicks will be treated in much the same way as goals. If a PK was given incorrectly, that can be reviewed, and if a PK should have been given but wasn’t, that can be reviewed. VARs will look for prior infractions in the APP by the attacking team that would negate the PK. Also, if an infraction occurs during the kick, such as a goalkeeper moving off his line or a player encroaching in the penalty area, that is only reviewable of the result of the kick is affected, i.e., if the offending player becomes involved in the play.

Red Cards

Only straight red cards are reviewable. Red cards issued for a second yellow are not subject to review. A red card can be shown as a result of video review, and it can also be withdrawn. Further, if the referee reviews the play and decides a yellow card is warranted, he can show that too. In red card situations, the APP only comes under consideration if the potential red card is for denial of a goalscoring opportunity. That is, if the attacking team commits a foul in the build-up to a DOGSO offense, the DOGSO is nullified as play should have already been called dead. Otherwise, red cards are considered on their own merit.

Mistaken Identity

This is the easiest area of application. Referees do get mixed up as to who committed a cardable offense, and this creates an opportunity to quickly fix a potentially game-changing error. It will apply to both red and yellow cards.

So that’s how VAR will work. One possible issue is that stadiums differ considerably in configuration, as do camera setups, and also the quality of TV broadcasts. Webb and PRO are working with all parties involved to attempt to standardize coverage as much as possible. 10-12 camera angles are expected to be needed, but you can only work with what you have. Also, if the system suffers some technical difficulty, the game will carry on without it after everyone in the stadium is informed. Finally, players may be cautioned if they ask for a video review (as our own Yamil Asad did rather pointlessly earlier this season) or if they enter the referee review area.

Those of you who watched the Confederations Cup will have seen video review in action, not always to good effect. Much of the problems experienced in that tournament resulted from referees who were unfamiliar with the system. That should not happen here in MLS. As I noted, the system has already been in use for much of this season in a shadow test, and the referees assigned as VARs have been given extensive training, hundreds of hours in some cases. No one expects the system to work flawlessly, of course, nor will it change every incorrect decision, but hopefully it will operate better here than it has elsewhere so far.

In conclusion, Webb presented a webinar on this topic earlier today, which can be viewed here.