How does VAR work? A guide to video review in MLS

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MLS will use video assistant referees in all matches starting Saturday, with former Premier League referee Howard Webb steering the ship

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Howard Webb could recite the talking points in his sleep. When it comes to the hot topic of video assistant refereeing, there has been no more concise communicator than the longtime Premier League official.

Having retired as a referee in 2014, the Englishman who officiated the 2010 Champions League and World Cup finals relocated stateside earlier this year to steer the implementation of VAR in Major League Soccer.

Serving as the manager of video review operations at the Professional Referee Organization, which oversees referees for various leagues and competitions in North America, Webb has helped educate officials, fine-tune the VAR program and educate the media about the long-awaited use of video technology in soccer.

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Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the Chicago Fire's Toyota Park as a part of the MLS All-Star festivities, Webb moved quickly to frame VAR in the proper context.

"Because of the subjectivity of the sport, it's important that people know we're not going to deal with the 50-50 calls or 70-30 calls," Webb said. "And we're not asking the VAR to ask himself or herself the question, 'Was the decision right?' They're going to ask the question, 'Was the decision clearly wrong?'

"The default position is that the on-field decision is correct unless we have evidence to the contrary in the video."

The refrain from Webb has become "maximum benefit from minimum interference," with any and all VAR decisions stemming from that principle. As he emphasized, the goal is to address a handful of match-changing plays and not attempt to achieve accuracy on every call throughout a game.

That's music to the ears of MLS commissioner Don Garber, who has spent years publicly advocating for the use of video technology in officiating. While the system has been tested, to mixed results, in tournaments such as the Club World Cup, U-20 World Cup and Confederations Cup, MLS will become the most prominent league to implement VAR when it launches the program Saturday.

"We've always been a proponent of using technology to make our game better and allow our fans to have a closer connection with our players and our sport," Garber said. "If it was up to us, as opposed to the governing bodies of the sport, we'd have way more technology in our game than we even have today."

With VAR confirmed for MLS through the 2017 regular season, playoffs and MLS Cup final, here are answers to the biggest questions surrounding video review in North America's top tier:


Which plays can be reviewed by VAR?


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Only four match-changing decisions can trigger a video review: goals, penalties, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity. That means any play in which the referee makes a decision (a call or non-call) related to those areas is eligible for review.

It's worth noting that these match-changing plays are simply the entry point for a review. Once a play is under review, the referee has the discretion to adjust any call made during that sequence.

Was a foul or handball committed by an attacker in the buildup to a goal? Was a penalty incorrectly awarded? Was the attacker who drew a penalty offside, therefore negating the chance that led to the call? All of these are plays that fall within the jurisdiction of VAR.

While yellow card decisions cannot prompt the use of VAR, the referee can use the system to hand out cautions once a review is underway for another reason. If a penalty was incorrectly awarded because a player dived, for example, the call can be reversed and the attacker booked. The referee also could review a potential missed red card but decide to only give a yellow.

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Although disallowing a goal via VAR is a simple enough process, awarding a goal that was incorrectly called back is trickier. If a strike is disallowed because of a foul, VAR can be used to correctly give that goal — provided the whistle came after the ball went in the net. The same logic applies to offside, even if the assistant referee's flag was already up when the ball went in.

"Players must remember that they have to play to the whistle," Webb said, "and not the flag."

In addition to penalty decisions, VAR also can intervene on the spot kick itself. Should a goalkeeper step off his line early or a player commit encroachment, video review can be used. But VAR will only step in if the offense makes a difference, such as an encroaching attacker scoring off a rebound. If a player enters the penalty area early but the goal is scored, VAR will not be utilized because the offense was inconsequential.

Another area where VAR is not used: the execution of a restart. If a team takes a quick free kick from the wrong spot or does so while the ball is still rolling, that play is not eligible for review — even if it leads to a goal or penalty.


How does a VAR review work?


The video assistant referee is obliged to conduct a "check" on every play involving one of the aforementioned match-changing decisions. The vast majority of these checks happen behind the scenes, with the referee, players and fans none the wiser.

"We continuously check all of these situations," Webb said. "Just because you don't see anything on the field doesn't mean things aren't being checked."

Should the VAR detect an obvious error, he will communicate that to the referee's earpiece and recommend a formal "review." In most cases, the referee will accept the recommendation and stop play by using his hands to draw the outline of a TV-like rectangle.

If the call is a factual matter, such as offside or out of bounds, the referee can take the VAR's advice via the earpiece and immediately change the call. But with subjective decisions, such as penalties and red cards, the referee typically will take a look at the pitch-side monitor. Ultimately, the referee on the field has the final decision.

The restart following a review often will be obvious, but it could be tricky in some cases. Should a penalty be awarded and then reversed, for example, the restart will be a dropped ball at the spot of the incorrect call. If a goal is awarded but it's determined via VAR that the ball didn't fully cross the line, the restart will be a dropped ball at the top of the 6-yard box.


How far back can VAR go?


When evaluating a game-changing decision, any call made in the "attacking phase of play" can be reviewed. Defined by Webb, that typically is when "a team moves toward the opponent's penalty area with some purpose."

If there is a stoppage and restart following a match-changing decision, the window of opportunity to use VAR is closed. That's why a referee will occasionally hold play at a restart, signaling to players by putting a finger to his earpiece, as he waits for a check to be completed. But there is an exception to this rule: a red card for violent conduct can be reviewed at any time, even if play has since stopped and restarted.

Should a team score off a free kick or corner kick that was incorrectly awarded, VAR cannot be used. At the time the set piece was given, it was not yet a goal — it was simply a restart, and therefore not one of the four eligible match-changing decisions.

When multiple game-changing decisions occur in the same sequence, the earliest call overrules everything that follows. So if a team is incorrectly denied a penalty before immediately conceding a counterattack goal at the other end, that tally is waved off and the penalty awarded.

Once again, there's an exception here for violent conduct. Even if a call is reversed, any red card for serious foul play that occurred in the aftermath will still stand. Otherwise, a player could see an obvious error from the referee, assume the entire play will be negated by VAR and find himself with free reign to commit violent fouls.


How is a review conducted?


Three key people are in the room for VAR: the video assistant referee, an assistant video assistant referee and a system operator.

In MLS, the VAR will have access to every angle the match broadcaster provides. While IFAB, the international governing body in charge of the Laws of the Game, requires a minimum of five angles for video review, MLS will have at least eight for every match.

To start a "check," the VAR will press a large red button that prompts a stopwatch on his monitor. At this point, the referee has not been contacted — it's simply a visual cue for the VAR. Although the VAR has the ability to choose angles, zoom in, slow down the footage or prompt picture-in-picture (a key function for offside decisions), that duty is largely left to the operator.

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Meanwhile, the assistant (or AVAR) keeps an eye on the live match feed. Should another game-changing decision occur while the VAR is still evaluating a previous call, the AVAR has a green button he will press to signal for another check.

The AVAR also will use the messaging system Slack to communicate with the broadcasters, media, public address announcer and video board operator. All parties will be informed if a formal "review" is started, with an explanation of the outcome later provided. And the decisive camera angle will be sent to the broadcasters and video board operator.

"We actually physically show them which angles we used, whether we zoomed in on things — it's a fully transparent process," said James Japhet, a Hawk-Eye executive who guided reporters through the VAR technology at Toyota Park on Tuesday. "We're not trying to use smoke and mirrors. We actually want people to see why a decision has been made."


Will VAR slow down matches?


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In a sample size of 90 test matches, MLS found the average game featured 8.9 VAR "checks" but just 0.36 official "reviews."

Evaluating the 2014 regular season, MLS determined that an average stoppage of 1 minute and 25 seconds already occurred following goals, penalty calls and red cards. That number went to 2 minutes and 41 seconds in plays affected by VAR, marking an increase of 1 minute and 16 seconds.

Speaking anecdotally, Webb estimated that the average behind-the-scenes check takes 30 seconds. While a review to sort out a mass brawl could take several minutes, the correction of an offside call on a goal could take as little as 10 seconds. Either way, video reviews will be factored into stoppage time.

"It's not going to change the way the game is played," Webb said. "If it does that, then it's not doing the job that it's meant to do. The game is beautiful, we love it for what it is — it's fast flowing, it has ebb and tempo, and it's not a series of set pieces.

"Yes, it does take a bit more time with video review. But we feel it's a price worth paying to get to a decision that's not a clear error."


Will refs use VAR as a safety net?


It's natural to think officials will be more inclined to let play continue on borderline decisions, knowing they have VAR as a fallback plan. But Webb emphasized that referees have been told to continue as normal.

"Will the assistants be more tempted to keep the flag down [on offside decisions] because they know they've got the safety net of VAR?" Webb said. "Well we're saying to them, 'Don't do that. If you've got doubt, give the benefit of the doubt to the attack, but don't change the basic way the game is being officiated from your side.'"

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The only instruction given to referees on this matter relates to the timing of a whistle. Because a goal cannot be reviewed if the ball goes in the net after a whistle, referees have been told to hold off on blowing a play dead for offside or a foul until they see if an immediate shot goes in.

But that idea just applies to bang-bang plays, in which the referee would only hold his whistle for a second or two. If a player is flagged for offside 40 yards from goal, for example, the referee will blow the play dead as usual.


How has MLS prepared for VAR?


MLS began to study the feasibility of VAR in 2014, with IFAB approving the system on a two-year trial basis in March 2016.

The league has since overseen 135 trials, ranging from preseason, USL and youth tournament matches to "offline" tests of MLS games, in which the VAR does his job without actually communicating with the referee. Each of the 50 VARs in PRO has logged more than 100 hours of training.

All 22 MLS stadiums are now equipped for VAR, with two offline tests held at each venue ahead of Saturday's launch. PRO also has met with the players and technical staffs from each club to brief them on VAR. (One lesson from these meetings: Players know that appealing for VAR by making the rectangular signal will draw a swift yellow card.)

Although the Confederations Cup in June had its fair share of hiccups while experimenting with VAR, MLS and PRO officials are confident they have properly prepared for the system's introduction.

"We'll make some mistakes, there will be some bumps in the road, we'll miss some things that are clear and obvious," Webb said. "But we're hoping that the big bulk situations are ones where the referee says, 'Thank goodness we've got VAR.'"

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