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Clear & Obvious: Reliving the VARquake

Were you awake?

MLS: Atlanta United FC at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A thing that happened:

Josef Martinez scored in the dying seconds of stoppage time to seal a stunning win as Atlanta United came back from a 4-1 second-half deficit to win 4-3.

-Dirty South Soccer dot com

It’s the single wildest game in three years of Atlanta United and an all-timer in MLS history. Half of the fanbase didn’t see it. They were asleep. Especially, Haris Kruskic.

With the Quakes coming to town for the first time since that night, let’s do an SBNation YouTube-style Rewinder on what Joe Patrick lovingly deemed “The VARquake.” But like. With words.

Let’s start here.

It’s September 20, 2018 and Chris Wondolowski has just scored. MLS’s future all-time leading scorer came on five minutes before this for a Quakes team already up 3-1. Now San Jose leads 4-1 over the future MLS Cup champions. Except they don’t.

A game that started on September 19, 2018 in Atlanta is about to go from real weird to REAL GOT DANG WEIRD.

[Extreme Will Buikema voice]


Wait, maybe we should have started here:

Josef Martinez is about to win the game for Atlanta United in the 95th minute. He’s sitting right on the edge of history. It’s about 1 a.m. in Atlanta. DSS’s Haris Kruskic is asleep.

[Extreme Will Buikema voice]


Look, it’s hard to pick a place to start with this thing. It was that weird.

It’s 11 p.m. in Atlanta. Haris Kruskic has just tweeted this:

Atlanta United is in a fierce battle with New York Red Bulls for the Supporters’ Shield, a fake trophy that doesn’t matter (when you don’t win it). New York is just one point behind Atlanta with six games remaining.

They’ve been out west for a while now. Four days before, they played at Colorado in an easy 3-0 win. Nothing too taxing. But they did have to stay on the road for a few extra days to avoid going cross country multiple times in the same week. And now they’re playing a game that the team’s #BodyClocks aren’t exactly conditioned for.

In some real MLS fashion, the game is being shown on Univision’s...twitter account. A large majority of folks are watching on their computer trying to figure out how to disable a horrific chat section that takes up the bottom of the screen. The production is less than stellar.

San Jose is last in the Western Conference. Despite Orlando City finishing with an MLS record for goals allowed in a season, the Quakes will still finish seven points behind the Lions. They will end the year with 21 losses. This team is very bad.

So bad in fact that they’ve just fired their manager. Mikael Stahre, in his first season, got the axe just two days before the game. Steve Ralston, who had never been more than an assistant coach, became the interim manager. He immediately received the task of facing one of the best team’s in MLS history.

But the new blood bump is real. Or maybe Atlanta was just tired.

Either way...

This happened.

Shea Salinas, an old guy with over 200 appearances for San Jose, found 23-year-old Nick Lima for his second and final goal of 2018. The worst team in MLS led the best team by one after 13 minutes.

But they had to make sure of that.

Check the time there. The ball is in the back of the net at around 12:50.

Jump forward a few minutes to this:


Which means now is as good a time as any to talk about VAR.

VAR is credited as the brainchild of a refereeing brain trust in the Eredivisie. In 2012 it underwent a mock trial throughout the Eredivisie season, but wasn’t fully implemented until August of 2016 when two teams in the United States Soccer league became the first to be impacted by the live us of VAR. A year later, MLS decided VAR had moved beyond its test phase and implemented the technology and procedures HALFWAY through the season.

There were predictably some stumbles. And the stumbles are going to continue. But in 2018, Atlanta United had a penchant for being affected by VAR. The best example of this coming during a game that would eventually decide the Supporters’ Shield winner.

From the DSS recap of the May 20, 2018 game against New York.

It appeared as if Josef Martinez had capitalized on that space in the 33rd minute as he slipped past Red Bulls center back Tim Parker to find himself on the receiving end of a phenomenal pass from Julian Gressel and in on goal. In the midst of the celebration of what Atlanta fans assumed was a 2-0 lead, the VAR awoke from his slumber deep inside the VAR Lair, 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Dismayed by the chance for another runaway Atlanta United victory, the VAR decided to disallow the goal and return to its slumber. Or whatever. Who the hell knows how this crap works anymore.

What could have been a 2-0 Atlanta United lead over a team that would eventually be their biggest rival that season, stayed a 1-0. Then, Miles Robinson got called for foul inside the box on Bradley Wright-Phillips. Everyone thought that VAR might correct a call that seemed dubious. Yeah. Nope.

Red Bulls converted and went on to win. Atlanta manager Tata Martino had thoughts. Many thoughts.

“I got no explanation of the calls, but who was the VAR referee tonight?” (Media: Mark Geiger) “Ahh, I didn’t see the plays but — wait, really it was the same one? Mark Geiger?”

“Penalty, nothing. Goal, goal. The red card they called on Jeff was a foul on the other player.”

“Aside from all that we played a very good team, but when two good teams play you need more even officiating.”

“I don’t want to take away from Red Bulls. They’re a very good team and that’s the same thing I said about Kansas City. But there was one protagonist in both games, and I’m not just talking about the referee. I’m talking about the same person. He reffed that game and he was on review tonight. On the penalty, there are very few times I’ve seen that called a foul, let alone a penalty. I think it had a direct impact on the game. Not just that one play, because we could have gone into the half up 2-0 but all the calls add up.”

“I sometimes don’t understand everything because of the language. I don’t know how they’re using VAR because I think that whoever is using it is reviewing things incorrectly at times.”

“I invite all of you guys to watch the replays and see what you think on the calls. But again, it’s not my problem. The problem is for everyone in this room because the referee that’s going to the world cup represents all of you.

Brad Guzan had less thoughts but still made his point.

The Red Bulls loss marked another instance in a string of incidents involving VAR. Most notably, this one just a couple weeks earlier in a loss against Kansas City.

Does the deflection actually make Josef onside? Probably not. But that didn’t stop us from examining the everloving hell out of this play for the next week. Please don’t make me think about it anymore.

Back to the game.

Down one, Atlanta found a few chances but couldn’t equalize. Then Danny Hoesen, a Dutch journeyman having somewhat of a career renaissance with San Jose, did this in the 43rd minute:

Atlanta United were well on their way to entering the half down two. But then Tito Villalba WEENNNNNNTTTTTTTT OFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF.

Besides this being an incredible goal, there are few things to keep in mind here. Mainly, there were plenty of reasons it should never have happened.

Remember the first goal? More importantly, remember how dang long it took them to decide whether the first goal, ya know, counted? Well, check the time on the goal.

Four minutes of stoppage time! In the first half! All because of a broken system that would somehow only get more broken by the end of the night.

On top of that, let’s remember why Tito was even starting.

In early 2018, Atlanta United brought in another Argentinean international, Ezequiel Barco. Not only did it break the MLS transfer record at the time, but ATLUTD President Darren Eales felt the need to announce the transfer live at the MLS SuperDraft. For no other reason really than to dunk on the rest of the league. After months of waiting for the 18-year-old to be announced, #BarcoWatch had finally ended.

But the thing was...that first year...he didn’t quite live up to the hype. Barco struggled to put up big numbers and endear himself to the fan base. And then...

Barco had found himself on the bench since that incident. Tito may have been starting this one anyway, but it helped to have his competition in hot water.

Down just one, it seemed like Atlanta might have finally woken up and decided to beat the worst team in the league.


Nine minutes later, we’re back to Wondolowski. San Jose goes up 4-1.

Haris Kruskic informs everyone at Dirty South Soccer he is going to bed. He won’t be heard from for hours. It’s about 12:35 EST.

Then. Uh.

Not only is it a handball at the other end. But it’s a handball in the box and a penalty for Atlanta United. About 30 seconds pass between the handball and the Wondolowski goal. The announcers, riding the struggle bus all night, hilariously and repeatedly yell about how nearly TWO MINUTES had passed between the handball and the goal. Either way, the central point is that enough time passed to allow San Jose to feel immense joy and then all encompassing panic.

Three minutes after going up three, Josef makes it a one goal game.

Amazingly, it’s his first goal since August 24. Amazing in large part because the last goal he scored broke the MLS record for goals in a season and Joe Bendik’s face.

(jk it always looks like that.)

Either way, despite a short drought and half of Atlanta in bed, things had been very much disrupted from a normal course of events. Naturally, Miguel Almiron capitalized on the chaos.

The game stayed tied. Until, of course, we got back to where we started this thing.

A brand new coach being put through the ringer. A wonder-goal that on a different timeline never gets a chance to happen. A scoreline that was then wasn’t. A broken system finally breaking Atlanta’s way. And Josef Martinez sitting on the first 30-goal season in MLS history at 1 a.m. in the morning.

The final shake in the VARqauke.