Opinion: VAR is Here, and I'm Still Not Convinced

Opinion: VAR -- I'm Still Not Convinced

So I've read a lot and watched a lot of video about VAR. During last off-season, I even had a chance to [http://lionsteethblog.com/blog/2017/1/8/interview-with-soccer-refs-part-two-soccer-in-the-usa]interview a pair of MLS Referees[/link] who talked about how VAR has been used in other countries and other leagues and the training MLS referees would receive. I even asked Coach Jason Kreis at the recent "Ask The Coach" event for his thoughts on the advent of VAR, and it seems like he is a fan and believes it will make the game better.

But I'm still not convinced. The MLS has actually packaged a series of videos explaining the four situations where VAR will be used: goalspenalty kicks, straight red cards, and cases of mistaken identity. My problem with VAR as it's envisioned is that its scope ends with the play in question, but it expands back in time to encompass everything that led up to the play. In my opinion, this is going to increase the number of fouls in a game because players will start trying to enforce justice by committing blatant and obvious VAR reviews in order to force the review of a perceived error by the referee earlier in the play. 

Let me give you an example from the Penalty Kick video linked above. One of the video segments shows a play in which a red card is awarded because a defender took down an attacking player inside the 18-yard box. VAR starts with that, but backs up the play all the way to the beginning of the attack, and during that sequence, it is shown that an attacking player fouled a defender before the ball entered the penalty area (a foul missed by the ref). This is counted as a "clear and obvious error" by VAR rules, so the ball goes back to that foul by the attacker and the defending team is awarded a free kick.

On the surface that sounds fine--fans screaming that the ref missed the earlier non-call will feel vindicated that the VAR forced them to get it right. But players are smart and they are going to figure this out. When a team falls behind in a match, I predict we are going to see the trailing team start intentionally drawing PKs in cases where they believe an attacker committed a foul earlier in the attacking sequence and they will try to force the review. Yes, that's a gamble, but some teams in desperate situations are going to believe it's a gamble worth taking, and it's going to slow down the game and introduce a lot of extra delays.

Up until this time, VAR and PRO Referee statistics indicate that the process adds fewer than 90 seconds to each match, and reviewable situations take place only 0.36 times every 90 minutes (or about once every three matches). I do not dispute the accuracy of these statistics so far, but I think they are invalid statistics because VAR was not employed to impact the match. You only have one part of the equation in play--that of the way the officiating crew will react to the presence of VAR. You have no real way to predict how clever players or even more clever coaching staffs will attempt to "game the system" and use the rules of the VAR scope of review to try to turn situations to their favor.

There is a familiar limitation on VAR that will be familiar to NFL fans. Just as NFL replay has to be initiated prior to the next snap of the ball, VAR in the MLS has to be completed within a single stoppage of play. When play stops after an event, the VAR official needs to notify the head referee a review is under way and the ref needs to delay play from resuming so the review can be completed. If play stops, but a team manages a quick free kick, throw in, or other restart before the VAR official can notify the head official of the review, then the opportunity is lost and the play can no longer be reviewed.

I'm not saying that VAR is completely a bad idea--I'm just not convinced yet that it's going to make the game appreciably any better. What are your thoughts on VAR? Do you welcome the advent of Big Brother for the referees to look over their shoulder and get another pair of eyes on these important areas of the match? Or do you think this introduces unnecessary complexity into the game? Let me know in the comments below!