VAR Making Its Mark on MLS Preseason

MLS preseason is always fun. Fans obsessively watch their teams to try and figure out how much better (or worse) their favorite team got in the offseason. Did they add that last piece needed to contend for MLS Cup? Is this going to be a long rebuilding year? Overreacting to a few results from meaningless exhibition games is now a yearly tradition.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 2017 MLS preseason—aside from overanalyzing exactly how good each team will be—is the new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

So, how’s it going so far?

We already covered the first changed call courtesy of VAR when Diego Chara was shown a red for his flying elbow to the head of Yura Movsisyan. Seems straightforward enough right? The ref misses a clearly dangerous play, reviews it, then gives a straight red. Nothing really worth arguing about. (Well, unless you’re a Timbers fan.)

VAR has been called upon two more times since. Like the Chara call, a straight red was issued to David Villa after the ref missed him slapping A.J. DeLaGarza on a set piece. Again, simple enough call.

The other instance isn’t quite so cut and dry. In the 87th minute of a match between Sporting KC and Colorado Rapids, with SKC leading 1-0, Dillon Powers sent a set piece into the box and Rapids players immediately complained of a hand ball that wasn’t awarded.

Play continued for another full minute before the ball went out of play, at which point the head referee went to the sideline to review the previous handball in question. Another minute later, the referee emerged from under the review tent to award Colorado a penalty. Powers stepped up to the spot and buried the kick, tying the game at 1-1 in the 90’+1. Play resumed a full four minutes after the initial missed call took place.

Let me first say that I believe, with the help of VAR, the referee absolutely got the call correct. It was a handball and the penalty was deserved. I don’t think that’s up for debate.

What is something that is worth discussing is the logistics of this VAR call. Had the call been awarded at the original time of the handball, SKC would have had another three to four minutes of game time to push for a victory. Instead, a late penalty at the 90’ was awarded, ultimately costing SKC a victory.

Now before you start yelling at me, I know this is preseason. I know realistically SKC wouldn’t have switched to an all-out press to push for a 2-1 victory in the Desert Diamond Cup. But what if this were Decision Day? What if SKC or any other team had a 1-0 lead and continued to play under that premise while time ticked away, only to find out that the victory they were fighting to protect wasn’t reality? Suddenly, three to four minutes of valuable game time is gone and there’s no guarantee it’ll be put back in stoppage time (especially if the review takes four minutes as this one did).

Ultimately, VAR will be a huge benefit to MLS. There will be fans that complain when calls go against them, but those same fans will applaud overturned decisions that favor their team. However, in order to avoid situations like the SKC/Colorado situation from happening during meaningful games (imagine this happening in MLS Cup!) the league and PRO need to more clearly and explicitly outline procedures as far as time keeping. Not just for scoring situations, but also for red cards. It’s not fair to one team to continue to play under one premise while time ticks away when the reality is something else.