Instant Replays in MLS: To Review… or Not to Review?

We have lots to cover in this discussion, so let’s get right to it.

The introduction of Official Reviews (use of Instant Replay) in Major League Soccer is long overdue, and I fully support a roll out as soon as 2016… assuming U.S. Soccer and Sunil Gulati can somehow obtain the blessings of FIFA (lame duck) President Sepp Blatter.

At the risk of potentially “dehumanizing” the world’s most emotional sport… why should MLS use video replays? Let me count the ways… and allow me to begin by stating for the record that not every idea shared in this article is my own, but you’ll soon see that my position is a bit more extreme than others.

Other U.S. pro leagues have introduced Official Reviews for their betterment without reducing spectator enjoyment. Most recently, our treasured national pastime had the courage to add Official Reviews for out/safe decisions and home run rulings… and guess what? We now have a lot less sand being kicked at baseball umpires.

I say, let’s go for it (then again, I was absolutely convinced that the two-referee experiment 12 years ago was the future of pro soccer officiating). If Official Reviews will help our esteemed colleagues correct one, perhaps two critical decision(s) that would have wrongly influenced – or outright determined – the outcome of an MLS game, then it’s worth implementing.

Having said that, I hope that spectators will not be forced to endure more than two delays for Official Review per game.

Apparently, I am not alone in some of my convictions.

“We spoke to the (MLS) Board about how instant replay might work, we think it can work, we’d love to see it work,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said during a half-time interview of the league’s All-Star Game on July 29 outside Denver. “We’ve got to talk to U.S. Soccer… but you should know that MLS is a supporter of the idea.”

MLS has spoken, loud and clear. How about the Professional Referee Organization (PRO)?

“PRO is in favor of Instant Replay but only when the game is naturally stopped (such as for) penalties and send offs,” explained Paul Rejer, PRO Training and Development Manager.

Interesting. And their counterparts with the soccer officials union?

“PSRA is certainly open to seeing how instant replay would be used in MLS, but reserve any further comment until we know if and how it will be used,” stated Professional Soccer Referees Association President George Vergara. “Up to now, PSRA has not been involved in the process.”

OK… I am still enthused by the possibilities. Let me share my own take on why we need it, how we can implement it, and perhaps most important: how to make it work and not turn MLS into a circus.

“Get it Right!”

Major League Soccer currently boasts 21 world-class athletes earning salaries in excess of $1 million per year. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, and clearly this ain’t no fooling around.

With so much at stake in MLS, more than ever, it is mission critical that officials get the key decisions correct. If that means an occasional delay for an Official Review, bring it.

“Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.”

Just what constitutes a “key decision?” Yes, teams have scored on throw-in plays, but we need to keep it real… and realistic. Let’s focus on decisions most likely to impact the outcome of the game… such as Red Card/No Red Card decisions, or Penalty Kick/No Penalty Kick, or (for Assistant Referees) Goal Scored (Not Offside)/Offside. The game should not be delayed for review of throw-in decisions, Goal Kick/Corner Kick, or whether a foul was “reckless” and warrants a caution. Still with me?

“Flag on the Play…”

The Coach’s Challenge works fairly well in the National Football League, but I don’t see a need for any red challenge flags in Major League Soccer. President Blatter once shared his vision of the protesting coach and Referee calmly reviewing a video clip together… I just don’t envision the likes of Caleb Porter or Jay Heaps silently watching a replay alongside Baldomero Toledo or Jair Marrufo without going ballistic when the replay confirmed the Referee’s decision.

“Please commit to not omit”

Errors of commission (when the Referee sees something that we don’t and stops the game) are generally pretty easy to review… the game is already stopped, so we just need to make sure that video technology is given a chance to do its thing before the game is restarted. The big debate seems to be over controversial decisions in which the call was “no call” and play continues – as in “no penalty kick” – or when the Referee calls a foul but rules that the foul did not “Deny an Obvious Goalscoring Opportunity,” so he doesn’t send the offending player off.

For Official Reviews to succeed, potential errors of omission must also be reviewed.

“I am the Eye in the Sky, looking at you…”

To make Official Reviews work, we first need to establish the credibility of the reviewer.

Official Reviews should be “requested” by the extra set of eyes: an assigned Review Official situated in a private suite inside the stadium, with an unobstructed view of the field and in proximity to two monitors – one divided to show up to four camera angles (broadcast and/or in-stadium video board), the other to show the live broadcast without audio. If the Replay Official is able to sneak a quick peek BEFORE the game is stopped (for example, play continues while a player holds his face), he can decide whether or not play should be suspended for an Official Review when the game is stopped by the Referee’s next decision.

Once the Replay Official decides that a call/non-call merits review, he should speak directly ONLY to the Fourth Official (via open microphone), who would then alert the Referee and Assistant Referees that an Official Review has been requested at the next stoppage.

When play stops, the teams use the stoppage as a water break (similar to an injury stoppage), and players on the field are not permitted to approach the Referee. The Referee runs to the area just beyond the touchline and between the technical areas, where he is met by the Fourth Official holding two headsets (one each for the Referee and Fourth Official) and a state of the art, high-resolution Microsoft Surface tablet computer. While communicating via headset with the Replay Official and the Fourth Official, the Referee quickly reviews at least two and not more than four vantage points of the critical decision, and discusses the play and decision with the Replay Official for no more than two minutes (ideally much less).

“Who is that masked man?”

You might conclude that I am advocating for a Game Inspector/Assessor or Coach/Mentor to serve as Replay Official. I am not. Since this person will have the ear of the Referee, the Replay Official should be an active MLS Referee within the ranks of PRO. (And now I’m picturing Brian Hall and Michael Kennedy spitting out their coffee…) Just where are we going to come up with seven or eight more Referees to join the PRO ranks? Well, you might not need them. Instead of scheduling Ricardo Salazar or Ismail Elfath to roam the sidelines and entertain Dominic Kinnear or Oscar Pareja as Fourth Officials, put them in the booth. If we’re going to introduce an additional voice into the conversation – a voice that might ask Armando Villarreal or Mark Geiger to suspend play and take another look at a match-critical decision – then it should be the most knowledgeable, respected and current voice.

Besides, PRO has plenty of Fourth Officials and up-and-comers who can become Fourths to focus on substitutions and maintaining decorum. The Reserve Official needs to be someone who made the same type of match-critical decisions while whistling an MLS game a week or two before.

“Let’s keep this between us…”

The Review Official SHOULD NOT have the ability to communicate directly with the Referee during dynamic play. He cannot offer observations, advice or pointers… therefore, he cannot be accused of having undue influence over the Referee. And again, the video he reviews is WITHOUT audio so he will not be influenced by comments made by biased team broadcasters.

“The Final Word goes to…”

Technology may become an important part of the solution, but sacrosanct are the six words around which the Laws of the Game were written: “In the opinion of the Referee.”

After reviewing video clips and hearing whatever the Reserve Official and Fourth Official might have to say, the Referee makes the FINAL decision. He advises the Replay Official and Fourth Official, then the Assistant Referees (back on their regular open microphones), and finally the two team captains who meet him at the touchline. No arguments, no discussions, just a quick clarification (NHL-style) and play is restarted (either based on the Referee’s new decision or for the reason play was stopped).

“Be sure to ask him nicely!”

Now that we’re all convinced that (in some shape or form) Official Reviews should be introduced to Major League Soccer, getting Instant Replay approved will pose a much larger challenge, as I alluded to at the onset of this discussion.

If approval is granted, it could happen as soon as 2016 – ideal for MLS, since no expansion will take place next season. And, the groundwork has largely been completed: MLS has not-so-secretly commissioned a pilot over the past two seasons, wherein “Replay Assessors” in four MLS stadiums observe the action (apparently armed with something similar to a DVD Recorder) and make notations about how they agree/disagree with Red Card and Penalty Kick decisions. They also note how long it takes to restart after a penalty kick was awarded.

It’s a start… in fact it’s a pretty solid foundation from which MLS can build a successful program under the stewardship of PRO. Kudos to Jeff Agoos at MLS.

But, in order for this forward-thinking idea to see the light of day, a number of mountains need to be moved, and diverse opinions need to find common ground. We can reasonably expect MLS, PRO and PSRA to get on the same page. The heavy lifting will almost certainly come from Mr. Gulati and U.S. Soccer (in concert with the Canadian Soccer Association), as they seek approval to introduce Official Reviews as an “approved experiment.” That approval won’t come easy… and it might (or might not) come easier after the FIFA membership elects Michel Platini to succeed Mr. Blatter.

Then again, most of us think FIFA owes us a World Cup (or at the very least a formal apology), so this favor might be seen as fair interest on the debt.

So there you have it, my friends: my thoughts on how to roll out Official Reviews to improve “the product” in MLS stadiums. What are your thoughts and ideas about Instant Replay in MLS?

Categories: MLS

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