Peter Vermes was livid. The Colorado Rapids just scored an equalizer against his Sporting Kansas City side, and there were three moments in the goal’s lead-up where the referee could’ve blown his whistle.
The goal should probably never have counted, but Sporting KC went on to lose that match 2-1. In post-game interviews, Vermes made it clear he felt the referee was wrong, and that he cost his team the match. Major League Soccer forbids such criticism.
So, as expected, Vermes was fined, along with two other coaches and a team owner, all for criticizing referees during that week’s matches. The month of September was off to a banner start in MLS.
But what if referees weren’t expected to see everything happening among 22 players at full speed on a large pitch? What if referees could do what fans do every time they watch soccer at home, and use video replay to determine fouls?
Vermes likes the idea.
“If you have the access to it, why would not use it?” he told the Guardian. “If there’s any time you can be certain about something, why would you not want to have all the information you possibly could? It’s kind of like the debate about goalline technology. It’s like, really? We really need to have a discussion about that? It’s crazy.”
Making it work
MLS commissioner Don Garber has been publicly voicing support for video replay since last year, and in July he offered his first hint that the technology might actually be used in MLS competition.
“We spoke to the board [of governors] about how instant replay might work. We think it can work, we’d love to see it work,” Garber said on television at half-time of the MLS All-Star Game. “We’ve got to talk to US Soccer, we’ve got to talk to Fifa, we’ve got to make sure the technology works, but you should know that MLS is a supporter of the idea.”
The reaction from fans was instant and the underlying tone from critics was that it would ruin the game. Soccer doesn’t have enough stoppages and video review would add delays, some said. The human element in game decisions is what makes soccer special, others said.
But MLS executives disagree. They have been quietly running trials for the past two seasons through Real Salt Lake, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Philadelphia Union – and the data proves video replay can work, according to Jeff Agoos, the head of competition for MLS.
The trials focus on using video replay for three types of calls: red cards, penalty kicks and goals. For each of these decision moments, there tends to be about one minute from whistle to whistle between when play stops and restarts, giving video replay booth officials “ample time to provide information to the referee before play had restarted,” Agoos said. A decision can usually be made within 20 seconds, leaving another 40 seconds for communication to the referee.
“When you think about it, the officials are the ones in the stadiums that have the least amount of information of anyone there,” Agoos told the Guardian. “The fans can literally click on their iPhone and within 30 seconds get a replay of the event. The officials don’t have that technology, and that makes no sense. They should have the ability to get more information to make a decision.”
There are plenty of models in American sports for MLS to follow – every major American sport includes a video replay system for referees. MLS officials have spoken to the NHL about their operation, where a central hub in Toronto remotely reviews all games live to assist officiating.
Outgoing Fifa president Sepp Blatter last year suggested coaches could have a limited number of challenges available where they could interrupt play and request a video review, but MLS and others seeking to implement video replay want a behind-the-scenes approach that will have a less obvious impact on the game.
Changing the game
A hallmark of many classic, memorable soccer games is controversy. Whether bad calls, no-calls or the handling of a particular situation, referees affect soccer matches in ways they arguably don’t in other sports. In short, referees add drama.
So, would soccer lose some of what makes it so attractive if referees got all their calls correct?
Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey doesn’t think so. Lagerwey was Real Salt Lake’s GM last year during their video replay trials and said controversy comes from the human element, which still exists in the proposed MLS video replay system.
“The calls are still going to be controversial. If the referee makes a call and he’s reversed, it’s still going to be a talking point, right?” Lagerwey told the Guardian. “He still will have made the decision, and the additional talking point becomes: did the replay guys get it right?”
Unlike goalline technology, which uses electronic devices to detect the placement of the ball over the line, instant replay relies on human interpretation of video. The people reviewing video would communicate their findings to the referee, who still has the ultimate decision-making power.
During the trials in MLS, the former referees supplied by the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) to staff video replay booths have not had contact with referees, but if a trial is approved for use in competition, Agoos said MLS wants that communication to be limited in its scope.
“We would want the video assessor to provide fact-based information rather than opinion,” he said. “Studs up, the foul was committed inside the penalty box, and so on. If the referee wants opinion, he can ask for it, but what we really want is facts given to the referee because the referee ultimately is still the arbiter of the decision.”
Video replay would also be used relatively infrequently on plays other than goals. In MLS, penalty kicks occur at a rate of less than one per every other game, Agoos said. Red cards are shown at a similarly infrequent rate. There is the possibility referees would blow their whistle more often in certain situations to trigger a replay, but that won’t be an option in most situations.
That means that most decisions will still be open to the interpretation of referees on the field, even with a video replay system – and that is by design to avoid “re-refereeing” matches.
“Video technology should be there to enhance the decision-making that we see happening from week to week,” PRO chief Peter Walton told the Guardian. “It is not there to referee the game and it is not there to re-referee the game. I think it will enhance the reputation of referees because people will actually see how many decisions that referees get right the first time.”
It is perhaps a rare occurrence when referees and coaches agree with one another, but support for video replay comes from both sides in MLS.
“We haven’t done an official survey [of clubs in MLS], but I can tell you that sitting here on a Monday or Tuesday when clubs call me and complain about a bad call, it is in the best interest of the game to do this,” Agoos said. “We’ll get more decisions right, we’ll have fewer angry calls on Monday and Tuesday, and we’ll have happier coaches.”
A sampling of interviews conducted by the Guardian suggests cautious but widespread support from club officials and coaches around the league, who all said they favor the use of video replay if it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the game.
For PRO, support for video replay comes from wanting to provide referees with more tools and more information. A video replay system is not an indictment of how well MLS referees do their jobs, Walton said.
“What this does is it enhances the referee’s ability,” he said. “What we’ve seen is, the vast majority of the times, the referee is actually proven to be correct. So it’s just a second set of eyes that will support what the referee has given. I don’t see this as a reflection on poor decisions that’s been given, I see this as a reflection of good decisions that are supported by the use of video technology.”
A US Soccer spokesman said PRO is taking the lead on this issue and added: “In general, US Soccer is supportive of any efforts that could be beneficial to referees.”
The only vocal group to complain is fans, although it’s likely a small minority. Once fans see the video replay system in action, they are likely to come on board, Lagerwey said.
“I think you’d actually get widespread support from fans,” he said. “We live in America and this is an American league and video replay is something that’s just commonplace across all other leagues here. American fans are used to it.”
The law of the land
As much as PRO and MLS may want to implement a video replay system, they can’t do it without the blessing of Fifa, which has previously been resistant to introducing new technologies.
A spokeswoman for Fifa directed the Guardian to the Laws of the Game, which only permit referees to reverse a decision after conferring with assistant referees on the field. The laws are overseen by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which has authority from Fifa.
“This is where I think Fifa is getting held up: they want to have some sort of calibration from MLS to Premier League to La Liga to Serie A so that everyone is doing it the exact same way,” Agoos said. “That way, if you go to see an Italian game, their process is the same as MLS.”
MLS has some help in convincing the Fifa juggernaut – the Dutch Football Association has been on its own mission to introduce video replay to its league games. They gave a presentation on video replay to the IFAB in February and the committee asked the Dutch to continue gathering data and present again in February 2016. Advisory panels for the IFAB will discuss video replay in October before presenting information to the full IFAB in November.
Agoos and Walton traveled to the Netherlands to evaluate their trial replay system and provide support to Dutch authorities. Agoos said MLS is happy to work with the Dutch federation directly and share findings from their trials to present to Fifa together.
The fact that Fifa and the IFAB have asked for more information about the video replay trials without ending discussion on the issue is an encouraging sign that they can be persuaded to support it, Walton said. But the process is a slow one. The soonest the Laws of the Game are scheduled to be under consideration for amendments is in March, according to a Fifa spokeswoman.
Walton and Agoos said they hope to have approval to begin using video replay in live competition next year, whether it’s in MLS or at another level, like the lower-division United Soccer League. If Fifa wants a competition to be the guinea pig for video replay, MLS has volunteered.
“My hope is that Fifa will give a competition the mandate to run a trial and MLS have already raised their hand to say ‘Yes, we want to be that competition’,” Walton said. “I’d like to think that somewhere during the course of next season, we will see video technology being used in limited capacity in some professional soccer in North America.”