The Angle

VAR (Again) and a Wild Saturday for MLS Referees

by on 14 August 2017

Saturday happened to turn into a very interesting night for referees in Major League Soccer… it was probably a good thing the Loons had the night off thanks to Atlanta’s new stadium not being ready. One can only wonder how Adrian Heath would have dealt with the madness.

(Let me start by saying this is NOT going to be a weekly column! At least I hope so.)

Let’s start with the VAR (video assistant referee) system again. This weekend saw three instances of VAR being used to “get calls right”, where the end result gives the haters plenty of fuel for their vitriol.

Kaká’s red card

We’ll start at Red Bull Arena, where an end-of-game mass confrontation led to a straight red card to Orlando’s Kaká.

One thing that drives me bonkers watching soccer on TV is the occasional lunacy that comes out of commentators’ mouths with regards to the Laws of the Game. These guys have the ability to influence a lot of people, so when they offer their commentary on the Laws, one would hope they spend some time familiarizing themselves with them and making sure they differentiate opinion from fact. To their credit, guys like Martin Tyler, Jon Champion, Arlo White, Taylor Twellman, and yes, even Alexi Lalas, are pretty good about doing their homework on the rules. Alas, what happens here is instead a crime against referee-dom.

First of all, let’s look at the letter of the Law that affects this play:

“…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.”

Kaka-Collin Mass Confrontation

These are not the faces of two people trying to kill each other. Unless they both work in the current White House, then maybe.

Kaká has a grin on his own face when he jokingly grabs his former teammate, Aurélien Collin, around the face. Collin is clearly laughing, not remotely put off by this. This is not provocative behavior, it’s two former teammates settling everybody down by joking around. It’s pretty clear the force here is negligible. Dear Shep Messing: this is not an application of the letter of the law. In fact, it may be a misapplication.

VAR can be used in mass confrontation situations to identify guilty parties and administer misconduct, so the use of VAR here for identification is perfectly fine. This is not a failure of VAR either. But the crew fails to understand the dynamic between the two players involved. There’s plenty of misconduct on this play, from Red Bulls’ Tyler Adams clapping at the down Orlando player to Orlando’s Cristian Higuita sparking the mass confrontation by being the third man into the mix. But Kaká’s act is not violent conduct. Referees are not expected to blindly apply black and white definitions to player behavior.

We used this first clip of the Kaká incident also because it briefly showed the four situations that VAR can be used for. That sets us up nicely for this incident in the 67th minute of the New England-Vancouver match…

New England penalty kick decision

First of all, yes, this is a push. It’s an utterly stupid play by Vancouver’s Tim Parker. Again, our announcers lose the plot and assume the video review is because the referee is trying to determine if the foul warrants a red card. It doesn’t, not even close. The VAR buzzed the referee because the foul is IN THE PENALTY AREA!

PA Push

Oh man… that’s inside the penalty area

Here we see a breakdown in the VAR process as it pertains to practical officiating. Yes, this is a dumb foul. On the other hand, most officials at the professional level would not give a penalty kick for this play. New England keeps possession of the ball in a very wide position, not threatening to score.

The push is flagrant, but it does not really keep the victim from getting involved in the attack (he wasn’t even trying to be in the play). Most referees will see this and, if recognizing it’s in the penalty area, will let the play finish and then give the defender a quiet word in the ear that he just got away with his one act of stupidity for the night, don’t expect any more handouts. You don’t award a 70-80% chance to score for a simple careless push when the attacking team’s actual chance to score off this play is probably less than 15% at the time of the incident.

The VAR likely recognized this push is in the penalty area, and therefore technically should result in a penalty kick, so he buzzes the referee. The referee knows everybody is going to see this video and see that the foul he just called was in the penalty area, but all it takes is a look at his face when he turns from the monitor to know he never would have made this call if he knew he was going to be pigeonholed into a potential penalty kick. So what does he do? He moves the spot of the foul forward a few yards to just outside the area.

Funny thing… relocating the spot of a free kick was not on the list of four items shown in the Red Bulls clip. You can, however, correct a free kick to a penalty kick of vice versa when determining if the infraction took place inside the penalty area. Odds are the referee knows by the time the stadium board plays this replay the game will be in action and none of the players will see it, so it looks like he’s made use of the replay. In his defense, that’s a good sell.

Elfath Not Happy

Referee Ismail Elfath looks like a Dark Cloud who just saw Vadim Demidov warming up

In reality though, what we are seeing here is an inability of the VAR to understand the decision. Do referees, coaches, players, and fans WANT this penalty kick given for this offense? Well, New England fans probably do, but most neutrals would say that’s not really how we want the game to go.

The VAR has the license to buzz the referee for penalty kick decisions, and that’s what is going on here. But in this case, the VAR probably should have sat on his buzzer. Interestingly, the VAR actually has to figure out what the referee would consider a penalty kick-worthy offense before invoking the need to bring this play to his attention. I would very much suspect this level of thinking has not been discussed in VAR’s implementation with the people who are serving in that role.

But, hey, that look on the referee’s face when he turns away from the monitor is truly priceless.

VAR decision in FC Dallas

On to our third VAR incident from Saturday, in first half stoppage time of the FC Dallas-Colorado match…

The use of the VAR in this situation is correct, but it provides yet another subjective question. If a play can be reviewed back to an infringement that starts the counterattack, well, can’t we also think about whether that infringement actually starts the counterattack?

Colorado’s Dominique Badji is fouled on this play by Atiba Harris. But the foul isn’t what launches the counterattack. This counter starts because Colorado’s #11, Shkëlzen Gashi, stops playing and lets the ball roll right past him because he thinks the referee is going to call a foul. Does the foul actually have anything to do with the outcome of the play? Only if you say that Gashi was right to stop playing. I’m sorry, but the last time I checked, players don’t call fouls, referees do.

Gashi Standing

Maybe Manny’s right when he says we don’t need to spend DP money…

I will not argue that if the foul is called, the counter doesn’t happen. That’s why the application of VAR here is technically correct. But does it feel like justice? I think that’s open for debate. The foul doesn’t create the counter, Gashi quitting on the play does. Gashi’s laziness gets a let-off thanks to VAR, and I’m almost certain that doesn’t fall anywhere under IFAB’s principles for its implementation. (IFAB is the International Football Association Board, guardians of the unified Laws of the Game.)

Justice here might be a goal for Dallas and a caution to Harris for a late challenge, but VAR doesn’t allow for that outcome… you can’t use VAR for a caution. If Dallas doesn’t score here, the VAR is never activated, this challenge is never reviewed, Gashi never gets his Get Out Of Jail Free card. Dallas is being punished for an opponent quitting on the play and contributing to them scoring. That makes no sense.

Also, remember how calling offside on Abu Danladi last week cost Minnesota United a chance to score? If we allow for VAR review to turn the clock back on a play with no whistle, we allow for all possible outcomes. In Dallas, play rolls on and Dallas scores. With the referee allowing play to continue, he allows for both the possibility of the goal or the original foul, whatever replay seems to justify. Hmm.

The last incident from Saturday night involved a situation where a foul that resulted in a penalty kick denied Houston an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO) in its match with San Jose…

This turns out to not be a VAR play, but it does involve yet another challenging subjective opinion that is open for debate. San Jose’s Andrés Imperiale is beaten by Houston’s Cubo Torres, and Imperiale lunges and brings Torres down. It’s an easy foul and penalty decision, but IFAB’s 2016 change to Law 12 rears its head here.

IFAB made a major change in 2016 to DOGSO rule, saying that DOGSO fouls that result in penalty kicks would now result in only yellow cards, with certain exceptions. One set of exceptions is that the foul would be pushing, grabbing, or holding, which does not apply here. But a second exception is that, even if the foul is something like a trip, it must be committed during an honest attempt to take the ball.

Imperiale DOGSO Tackle

Honest attempt to play the ball or cynical challenge?

The referee on this play initially awards Imperiale a red card, but after consulting with the assistant, downgrades the card to yellow. Understand this is a completely subjective decision. Did Imperiale have a realistic chance or make an honest attempt to play the ball here? If there is any possibility in the referee crew’s mind that he did, then they should go with yellow, and that’s the decision. It is a defensible decision.

But it is equally arguable to say Imperiale has no chance to play the ball here, and that his trip is simply bringing Torres down for the sake of halting the scoring chance; that is, this is a CYNICAL challenge. If Imperiale commits this same foul in the middle of the field on a promising attack, we easily define it as such. If that is the opinion of the crew here, then the card would still be red.

This play is a perfect example of the most frustrating and difficult aspect of the new application of DOGSO: both decisions can be correct. One official might say there’s a chance for Imperiale to take the ball and he is playing without cynicism, another would call that opinion ridiculous. I can watch this play 10 times and I can argue both sides five times. IFAB changed this rule to eliminate what they felt was overbearing triple punishment: penalty kick, send-off, and suspension. But Houston ends up playing the remainder of this game against 11 players in part because the new rule gives the official an out to avoid the send-off. Is that justice? Depends on whether you lean orange or black.

I also brought this play up because it brings us full circle from Kaká’s send off that I opened the article with. We started the article with what as arguably an unyielding and unreasonable black and white decision on a play that 99 out of 100 people would watch and say is a misappropriate application of the spirit of soccer’s Laws. We end with a play that has no 100% correct decision. but one way or another is going to drive half of the interested parties bonkers.

One of the fundamentals of officiating soccer is to provide a match environment that is safe, enjoyable, and entertaining. It’s often times difficult to juggle these aspects, providing just enough officiating involvement in the match to keep it safe but as little as possible to allow the players to ultimately decide the game. VAR and alterations to the Laws are supposed to improve this balance.

But on Saturday, we saw an unyielding and arguably incorrect interpretation of the spirit of the Law, two cases where the VAR put the referee in a pickle that otherwise would not have existed, and a play with no definitive correct decision. Maybe the question is not ‘should we make the game better,’ but rather ‘are we going about it in the right way, and, is it even possible?’


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  • Jim Oliver

    These are great, Doug. Thanks.

    And this is probably a stupid question, but I just want to make sure I understand:

    When I look at the penalty decision in COLvCHI on Saturday, can we assume that VAR upheld the decision? That penalty seemed to happen so quickly and to my (untrained) eye it seemed that Lampson pretty cleanly won the ball. Was there a review there just by virtue of the penalty decision and it happens that quickly?

    • Doug Marshak

      As I understand it, VAR does not “uphold” penalty kick decisions. The VAR reviews the decision for whether a “clear” error was made. In this case, the goalkeeper gets the ball but also is sliding through the attacker. This is not a “clear” error but rather a subjective decision, and I would guess the VAR would have decided not to recommend review by the referee as a result.

      • Jim Oliver

        Ach. Of course. Thanks a lot.

        I was just excited sitting there watching the game in my buddy’s living room, thinking “Oh, we’re gonna see this get flipped,” then nothing happened.

  • Dustin Edwards

    You might want to add some other screenshots of Colins face while it’s being grabbed from behind by Kaka. You used one picture of him smiling like it was no big deal, that’s not the action Kaka was punished for. It’s disingenuous at best.

    • Wes

      Colin was smiling the whole time. He even walked over to the ref afterward to defend Kaka.

      • Jacob Barnas

        The problem is, you cannot determine the punishment of a player by the reaction of the victim. If somebody is taken out with a studs up challenge, if they behave sportingly and talk it out with the offender, that doesn’t make it a non-red card. The same applies here, you cannot know how Collin would react if he was being smothered by the player behind him. He chose to react sportingly, but that’s his business, and does not reduce Kaka’s punishment.

      • Dustin Edwards

        Didn’t see that section in the Laws of the Game. Is that how you instruct referees in Minnesota? Ask the opposing team if they want the player sent off first?

        • BJ

          I think the article does a lot to cover what the laws of the game cover and doesn’t cover – for example referees are allowed a lot of discretion.

    • Dave Benhart

      I agree. Colins looks annoyed at best and spins around quickly after being grabbed around the throat. Maybe he laughed it off later but initially he was not pleased about it.

  • Gitchee Gomie

    I would be fine with this being a weekly column, because this sort of analysis is fascinating. Great work.

    • Dave Benhart

      Here here! Or if not weekly at least a regular column. I love it.