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Are Atlanta United fans right to complain about VAR?

Atlanta United’s large and passionate fan base is a beautiful thing. But sometimes, it can steer us in the wrong direction.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Havin’ fun in the bubble

Let me start by saying that above all, I am a fan. Just like you. I booed when Chris Penso overturned Josef Martinez’ goal on Sunday, looked on in horror after an incredibly soft penalty call allowed NYRB to equalize, and was at a loss after the bizarre Jeff Larentowicz sending off. I left Mercedes-Benz Stadium frustrated and upset Sunday night. And the loss to NYRB still stings today.

However, the raw emotion of being a fan can often dictate opinion and discussion, especially on officiating decisions. And this pack mentality has lead us astray on several refereeing decisions this season, including Josef Martinez’ controversially disallowed goal on Sunday.

It is true that MLS referees have plenty of bad moments. But it appears that in Atlanta, we are simply on auto pilot - instinctively blaming referees, and in particular VAR, for getting the decision wrong whenever it hurts our cause. Time and time again, our biased opinions have been proven wrong by video evidence, rules of the game, and consensus-opinion from the experts in the refereeing community.

Josef Martinez disallowed goal No. 1

The uproar over Josef Martinez’ correctly disallowed goal on Sunday was the most recent instance of fans being completely in the wrong on a call that didn’t go our way.

When Penso judged Josef Martinez to have clipped Tim Parker from behind, nullifying the subsequent goal, the MBS crowd, social media, and even some of the local pundits went berserk. For the most part, this is a good thing. The more passionate a reaction, the more passionate the fan base and community. But that doesn’t mean we were right.

Initially, there was outcry that the foul on Martinez was not “clear and obvious,” as the contact was not clear from the one or two wide angles shown on television. Of course, it is safe to assume that Penso was able to view more than just the one replay shown on television. The guys over at broke it down perfectly, and we can clearly see with the angles provided that Martinez cleverly clips Parker’s ankle, causing him to lose balance and go down. There is “clear and obvious” contact.

But even with video evidence right in front of us, this wasn’t enough to convince us. First, there was widespread talk that the contact between Martinez and Parker was merely “incidental.” This appears to entertain a common misconception that a player must fully intend to make contact with a player for a foul to have occurred. But again, as we learned later, the rule Martinez violated has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not Martinez meant the contact or not.

Fouls are judged based on three criteria: recklessness, carelessness, or excessive force. This foul fits clearly into the definition of “careless,” which is defined as: “a player showing a lack of attention or consideration when making his challenge or acting without precaution.” The contact was clear, Martinez’s action was careless as he invaded Parker’s space, and the foul had a massive impact on the play in question, resulting in a goal (Martinez is never getting to the ball if not for the contact).

Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine that Atlanta United fans wouldn’t change their tune if the shoe were on the other foot, and Bradley Wright-Phillips had clipped Michael Parkhurst from behind, leading to a goal.

After the fact, both PRO and Howard Webb came out and clearly explained that the decision was the right one. Speaking to ESPN pundit Taylor Twellman on MLS Rewind, Webb told us that this call “epitomized why we’ve got VAR” (start video at 17:28). His explanation is sound and based clearly on the laws of the game. (For those claiming Webb is simply covering up for his colleagues, watch the same interview further, as he admits to two likely mistakes VAR made over the weekend).

So in retrospect, the call was correct - at least based on laws of the game. The call was supported by the higher-ups at PRO and Howard Webb. And even after all that, you’d have thought Penso, and VAR Mark Geiger had gotten the call absolutely wrong.

In the end, we were simply incorrect - there was clear contact in the buildup to the goal, whether that contact was “incidental” is irrelevant, and the governing bodies have come out since and said the right call was made. Case closed. Unless you think there’s a vast conspiracy on behalf of PRO to screw over one of the league’s most popular, marketable, and exciting teams.

It should also be noted that the criticism of Geiger, which likely stemmed from the erroneous criticism of a call he made in Atlanta one week earlier (to be discussed below), was completely off base. Geiger had every right to communicate with Penso, and tell him that Martinez may have committed a foul in the buildup to the goal. He also made the right call getting the Larentowicz red card to be reviewed. Geiger was not even making the final decision, but United fans (and sadly, also the players and Tata Martino) went after him more so than Penso, the man who actually made the decisions on the field (including the very soft pen call).

Josef Martinez disallowed goal No. 2

There is perhaps no better example of our misdirected outrage than the reaction to Martinez’ disallowed goal against Sporting Kansas City. In the 5th minute of a scoreless match, this happened.

Initially, head referee Mark Geiger allowed the goal to stand. But after a lengthy review process, he determined that the play was offside.

Once again, this sparked an avalanche of outrage and misinformation within the AU bubble. Pundits and fans went on about how the offside rule had been changed for this specific instance, with the rule being that: “A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save by any opponent) is not considered to have gained an advantage.”

On its head, one would think that Geiger has misinterpreted the rule, perhaps forgetting altogether that the rule had changed. But the folks who rushed to cite this rule change did not do their research properly. What’s important here is how “deliberate” and “deflection” are defined. How are we to determine that Kansas City’s Jimmy Medranda had “deliberately played the ball” without looking deeper to see how officials actually define “deliberate,” in this instance?

Medranda’s touch fits the definition of “deflection” to a “T.” The key words and numbers in the above chart are “0.3-0.6 seconds,” the amount of time needed in order for a player to be deemed “ready” to make a deliberate play on the ball. Based on this, Medranda certainly did not have enough time to react- one of the main factors in deeming his touch a “deflection.” Per the criteria for a deflection, he also made an instinctive movement towards the ball, and was off balance.

As for the criteria for “deliberate,” there is very little to indicate Medranda’s play was such. Was the ball “expected?” Clearly not according to the laws, as once again, more than 0.6 seconds of time to react are required in order for it to be considered “expected.” Was Medranda balanced with enough time to play the ball? Also no, which is why he was forced to lunge for it in the first place. And most importantly, the ball was not “properly played” (unless you think Medranda was attempting an incredibly risky back pass to Tim Melia).

Simply put, the lack of time Medranda had to play the ball, coupled with the ball not being played properly, makes Geiger’s decision the correct one.

Webb confirmed this days later, telling the AJC’s Doug Roberson: “It was just a reaction, stick the leg out and the ball bounced off the leg. The player didn’t have time to play the ball -- that’s another consideration. Didn’t really have balance and the ball deflected off him. I considered that to be the correct outcome.”

Once again, this shows an example of how we can easily develop an opinion merely based on what will be best for Atlanta United. Folks were more than happy to go and identify the rule change for offside. But we weren’t willing to delve deeper and find out exactly how “deliberate play” is defined in the rule, instead going off of our own subjective definitions that best suited Martinez’ case.

Let’s not forget another goody from this match, as this GIF of an apparent “hand ball” on Matt Besler made it’s rounds. As a proud member of our bubble, I quickly jumped in on the action.

We later learned that the angle/short length of the clip provided us with a misleading angle, and the ball had not struck Besler’s hand.

Kendall Waston Red

There was one call made by VAR in an AU match that was actually incorrect. It worked in the Five Stripes’ favor. There was little outrage like we’re seeing this week.

In the 12th minute against Vancouver Whitecaps, referee Ismail Elfath awarded a penalty and after going to VAR, sent off Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston for violent conduct after an apparent elbow.

The call confused me at the time. Didn’t LGP simply run into the back of the taller Waston? A foul, perhaps. But where was the red card here, exactly? Time and time again, the play revealed nothing of the “clear and obvious” manner, at least to support the sending off for Violent Conduct. The Whitecaps played the remainder of the match down a man, losing 4-1.

Again, the AU bubble took the side that suited their team. And again, we were wrong. Vancouver protested the red. Atlanta fans were having none of it. There were a slew of “zoomed in” angles on social media that were supposed to reveal the elbow. We also heard that an elbow making any sort of contact with the face is an “automatic ejection.” As the trend goes, this was a manipulation of the rules came not out of principle, but from our biases as AU fans. In reality, the rule is not that simple, stating that violent conduct occurs when:

“Violent conduct is when a player uses or attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball, or against a team-mate, team official, match official, spectator or any other person, regardless of whether contact is made.

In addition, a player who, when not challenging for the ball, deliberately strikes an opponent or any other person on the head or face with the hand or arm, is guilty of violent conduct unless the force used was negligible.”

Simply put, the Waston foul was not a “deliberate strike of the opponent.” This was not an example of violent conduct. And an independent panel agreed, unanimously reversed Waston’s sending off.

Embrace the bubble. But realize we’re in one

Fans are by nature biased, and the passion and atmosphere at MBS are a tribute to such. Atlanta has embraced this team and sport in an impressive manner. But sometimes, you need to take a step back and realize that this pack mentality can lead us astray.

Extensive research now tells us that large groups can often make shockingly incorrect decisions. A recent study at Arizona State University draws the now-common conclusion that “while crowds might indeed be wise when it comes to making tough, close calls, they are actually worse than individuals at choosing between two options, one of which is vastly superior to the other. When the choice is easy, in other words, the crowd can actually be pretty dumb.”

Our reactions to these controversies during matches is great. It shows off the passion and the atmosphere and maybe pushes the referees that extra bit But after the match, perhaps we should do a better job of taking a step back and being objective, especially when we’re discussing the referees themselves. As we saw with the aforementioned instances, the AU bubble has shown a propensity for outrage this season, even in situations where our furor has later been proven wrong time, and time again.

Whether it be the letter of the law, video evidence, or the final determination made by the refereeing experts themselves, the widespread opinions on VAR’s usage in AU matches have, in my opinion, been wildly off base. More telling is that each and every time these scenarios have arisen, we AU fans have taken the side that generally favors our boys.

At some point we must ask ourselves - are we generally concerned with the implementation and decisions that come from VAR? Or are we allowing our fanhood to cloud our judgement, simply picking and choosing instances where the decision goes against us to drive our supposed anger? Evidence says it’s the latter.