In late October, Sporting Kansas City captain Matt Besler met with the media for what was intended to be a recap of the 2016 season. But the interview instead focused almost exclusively on the sour note in which it had ended days earlier, a 1-0 playoff loss in Seattle that was marred by questionable decisions from the referees.
“I think this sport should definitely have replay,” Besler said. “I think we might look back, and that game that we just played might be the game that everybody points to and says, ‘This is where it changed.’”
Just nine months later, instant replay is coming to Major League Soccer. In fact, when Sporting KC plays host to Atlanta United FC at 7 p.m. Sunday, the match will include the possibility of replay determining a game-changing call. MLS is officially labeling the process “video assistant referee,” or VAR for short.
A single outcome did not prompt the midseason addition, but it’s stuck with Sporting KC just how different 2016 might have ended had VAR been implemented one year earlier. The Star spoke to more than a dozen members of the club this season about replay, and all of them offered at least some support of it.
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But it’s coupled with a wait-and-see-how-it-works approach.
“Replay can obviously help the sport become a more fair game, no?” midfielder Ilie Sanchez said. “But I think I will have to see how these four months go before I make an opinion. I want to see how it works.”
The system will place the video assistant referee in a booth, challenging him to watch every action in the game. If the VAR sees a potential mistake in one of four match-changing areas — goals, penalty-kick decisions, straight red cards or cases of mistaken identity — he will relay that information to the center referee.
The center referee never loses control of the final decision. It’s his option to halt the match at the next stoppage and review the play. He can then watch replays on the sideline.
The key phrase in all of this is not unlike other professional sports. In all capital letters, MLS presentations have made the point that the call must be “clearly wrong” to be overturned.
“It’s not meant to change the way the game is played,” said Howard Webb, the VAR operations manager for the Professional Referee Organization. “The goal is maximum benefit and minimum interference.”
While conducting dry runs of the process, Webb and his team determined there will be an average of just 0.36 reviews per game. In other words, it truly is only clear and convincing evidence that will prompt its use.
The MLS Disciplinary Committee believes it has found such evidence in at least five Sporting KC matches this season. Four of the errors went against Sporting KC, and one favored it. That’s only when it’s applied to straight red cards, one of the four match-changing scenarios.
But there is skepticism replay will be applied in the same manner. With the center referee holding the final word, he would essentially need to admit his own mistake for a call to be overturned.
“I think it’s still going to be left up to human error,” said Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, who has long advocated for replay in some form. “There can be disagreements on almost every red card or foul or penalty. How many are clearly wrong?
“Where VAR will help is when there’s something like a handball and the referee was blocked from seeing it or when the ball crosses the goal line and the linesmen couldn’t see it or on offside. That’s where you’ll see it help.”
On those other decisions — the debate-into-you’re-blue-in-the-face red cards or penalty-kick decisions — the calls might prove more challenging to be labeled as “clearly wrong.”
And here’s the biggest concern among the players who spoke with The Star: How long will the review take? During the dry runs, Webb said the stoppage would be extended by an average of 76 seconds per review.
That delay impedes what players say is one of the old beauties of their game — continuous play. The clock never stops. There are no timeouts. But a review would certainly feel like one.
“I’m for (replay). I think it will help the game. But it will be interesting to see how they do it,” Besler said. “Does it take 30 seconds, or does it take 10 minutes?”
Even if it’s the former, it’s going to have an impact on the game because of the delay. Besler and Sanchez each issued the same applicable example. A few Sporting KC matches this season have required water breaks because of heat. Those breaks have allowed Vermes and his staff to make significant in-game adjustments they usually don’t have the opportunity to implement.
“It’s an advantage. We have a good coach, a fast coach,” Sanchez said. “He can make a change. Sometimes a player is feeling what’s going on, but it’s impossible (to make a change) because you have to be ready for your actions.
“This is an advantage for all teams, but especially for us.”