MLS shows VAR has a future, but at Russia World Cup 2018 the training wheels need to stay on

MLS Talking Points

Last night Iran battled to earn an unlikely 1-1 draw against Portugal in their final Group B game while Spain recovered to seal their place in the knockout stages.

But it was the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system that was once again the talking point of the evening, much as it has been in this World Cup. VAR overturned Iago Aspas’ disallowed goal to secure Spain’s comeback while simultaneously awarding a penalty to Iran for Cedric Soares’ handball. The result of VAR’s intervention means Portugal face Uruguay instead of Russia (who take on Spain) in the last 16 whilst Iran duly miss out.

VAR is still raw technology in its teething phase. It has become the talk of the World Cup simply because of its controversial decisions. The system is like a new hover-board put together by Dad on Christmas morning and the referees are the kid riding it still gaining their balance.

However, the use of VAR in Major League Soccer shows it has a future. The MLS introduced VAR in competitive matches during the 2017 season, the longest serving use of VAR in any competitive football across the globe to date.

Although its first official use correctly quashed a goal for FC Dallas in a match against Philadelphia Union, VAR has had mixed responses in America in its 10 months of action. Atlanta United Manager Tata Martino has publicly criticised the technology believing the presence of VAR is ‘undermining the referees and making them reluctant to make calls.’

On the other hand, former Arsenal midfielder Stewart Robson wrote in the Times in March VAR can eradicate diving and referee inaccuracies we as fans so strongly condemn.

Former Premier League referee Howard Webb, who is working for the Professional Referee Organization – the outfit that trains and assigns referees in North America – has praised its use in the MLS so far. He told ESPN in October 2017, eight weeks on from its introduction,

“We’ve been satisfied with the way it’s gone. We always knew that it was a big undertaking for any competition that decides to implement VAR. It’s a big thing to implement, and a lot of work goes into both training our people and preparing our stadiums. Me personally, I’ve been really impressed by the way that’s been put together by MLS.

In terms of the on-field stuff, we’ve seen some really good uses. I for one believe it’s a wonderful tool. I sit there sometimes in stadiums behind the VAR thinking, “I would have like this opportunity when I was on the field for a trained colleague to be able to check these most important plays and identify if I’ve made a clear error.”

The MLS is the only league to have used the system substantially and had the time to iron our impurities. Criticism has still continually been voiced from Germany, Australia, Brazil and even during the FIFA Club World Cup. There is little evidence other than the MLS where VAR has had suitable practice to be considered ready. Maybe FIFA should have delayed its introduction to the 2022 World Cup and continued trialling its introduction in major leagues across the world.

While we watch, the 2018 World Cup in Russia continues to become shrouded in the mystery of VAR, 2-3 years experience in our own leagues would have prepared us for its inclusion at the 2022 World Cup. Instead the focus isn’t on the achievements of Ronaldo and Kane or the failings of Messi and Argentina, but on the controversy of VAR.

It’s a shame the only fan base that were most prepared for its involvement saw their National side fail to qualify and instead witness their conquerors Panama be embarrassed by England.

While VAR creators watch their child wobble and stumble with the new toy, the audience is the old lady across the road looking out the window tutting at the new technology saying ‘what’s wrong with peddle bikes’ as she watches little Charlie fall over in humiliation live in front of millions.

About the Author

Sam Perkins
Samuel Perkins is a freelance sports journalist and teacher of Media and Sport specialising in Further and Higher Education. He has contributed to, football fanzines Hotspur Magazine and the Evertonian and worked for the Football Association.