VAR Announces its Presence

The Video Assistant Referee initiative, or “VAR,” is being tested in select MLS preseason matches and we’ve already seen it used to review a penalty call. But Thursday night’s “friendly” between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake took VAR to a whole new level. “Friendly,” is in quotes here because the game was anything but. Referee Sorin Stoica had to break up a pretty serious scuffle between the teams early on and the game only got more physical from there.

The physically culminated with Diego Chara landing a flying elbow to the head of Yura Movsisyan while the latter was shooting from the top of the box. Stoica never saw it, but the VAR did. Stoica paused the ensuing corner to look at a replay, then proceeded to come back onto the field and show a red card to Chara. It was undoubtedly the right call, but it was the most tangible and serious example we’ve had of how VAR can influence the outcome of a game.

An extended stoppage of play, one of the main concerns and criticisms of the system, was the tradeoff for getting the call right. Stoica had to spend several minutes reviewing the video, showing the card and getting Chara off the field. Four minutes of stoppage were added at the end of the first half. What’s interesting in this case is Stoica never initially called a foul, let alone issued a red card. The rules for VAR say the system can be used for goals, penalties, red cards and cases of mistaken identity (where the referee shows a card to the wrong player). Thursday night’s incident was the first example of the VARs deciding to review a play rather than the head ref making a call and then asking for a review.

This also raises the question of why an official has to go to the sideline to review video. If the VARs determine the call should be reviewed, then shouldn’t they be able to make the call itself? Allowing the booth to make a judgement in this type of situation would significantly cut down on the time play is stopped for. The argument against “booth” decisions likely stems from a fear of undermining referee decisions made on the field. However, it’s been shown over and over keeping an eye on 22 players spread all over the field is really tough. There’s no shame in admitting a ref could use a little help, especially if the entire point of the system is to “get it right.”

Bottom line: this is why the system is being tested in preseason before ever having the chance to impact a meaningful game. It will be interesting to see what, if any, changes come out of Thursday’s use. In the meantime, you can click here to check out the list of preseason games where VAR will be in use.