The picture was saved on a Sporting Kansas City player’s iPhone last March and passed around to teammates inside the locker room. It provided the clearest piece of evidence of a missed call — five red FC Dallas shirts tucked behind Sporting Kansas City’s back line but the absence of an offsides flag. The sequence preceded Dallas’ game-winning goal.
It’s one example in a long list of game-changing referee errors over the past couple of seasons. An uncalled handball against Houston. The unpenalized trip of Dom Dwyer in San Jose.
On Sunday, a decisive mistake swung in Sporting KC’s favor. Defender Lawrence Olum attempted a pass to keeper Tim Melia, but he instead sent it over his own goal line before Melia could clear it. The referees failed to award FC Dallas a goal, and Sporting KC won 2-0.
All crucial calls. All shown to be incorrect by ensuing video evidence.
“You remember the ones that go against you more than anything,” Sporting KC forward Jacob Peterson said. “It’s like picking the wrong lane in a traffic jam. You always remember when you picked the wrong lane because it’s frustrating. You don’t remember when it goes in your favor.”
Major League Soccer is starting to show an increased effort to erase the debate altogether. Earlier this month, the league announced its intentions to experiment with video assistance for referees, joining a project under the International Football Association Board.
In other words, instant replay is coming to MLS. The form, fashion or timeline of its implementation remains to be determined.
“I would like it,” Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “I think the game is too fast and too difficult for the human eye a lot of times. As much as I love the original rules of soccer, if we can do away with the human error in the game, I think that would be a huge plus.”
The United Soccer League will use “dry runs” with the video assistance project this summer, helping MLS develop a plan for its actual implementation. Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said the league has not given the clubs a timeline for the resulting plan to be used during matches.
But it’s on the way.
“We believe the time has come for a mechanism that helps referees avoid clearly incorrect decisions that change the game,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement.
That’s the key phrase — decisions that “change the game.” When the majority of soccer matches are decided by one goal or fewer, a referee’s error has a significant chance of impacting the outcome. If FC Dallas had correctly been awarded a goal Sunday, it would’ve taken a 1-0 lead on the road, almost certainly altering its strategy for the remainder of the match.
But because the play unfolded in an unexpected manner, the referees were unable to move quickly enough to see if the ball crossed the goal line.
“Even Usain Bolt would have had trouble (beating) the ball at that pace to be in the optimum position,” said Paul Rejer, the training and development manager of the Professional Referee Organization, which assigns the officials in MLS matches.
But how far will MLS take its usage of instant replay? That remains to be seen. Sporting KC players are widely in agreement that offsides is the most difficult call, a play that requires the assistant referee to essentially look two places at one time.
Feilhaber and Vermes illustrated the need for fouls in the box and potential red-card worthy tackles to be reviewed, as well. And while the majority of soccer minds tend to agree, the belief isn’t unanimous.
“It’s still a judgment call, whether you’re looking at it during a replay or live,” Sporting KC winger Brad Davis said.
Davis added that he worries about the potential delay in a game in which the clock never stops. A review could provide a break in momentum, a point Vermes acknowledged, saying the team’s miraculous three-goal comeback against Vancouver last season may have never happened with a delay.
“There’s a lot to consider,” Vermes said. “But there’s a lot riding on these games, and one call can be the difference. It’s extremely important that we get it right.”