The Robots Are Taking Over Major League Soccer

Instant replay review is coming to American soccer. The Video Assisted Referee (VAR) system is currently being tested by MLS during the preseason—including the Portland Invitational Tournament—and will be up and running in all 22 MLS venues during the first half of the regular season. This period, which lasts until the All-Star Game on Aug. 2, is being referred to as “offline testing” and will not impact the game in any way.

If the MLS brass like what they see during that time, VARs will go live and be active in games for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. This truly is the dawning of a new era, and will finally bring soccer into the modern age of American sports.

Replay reviews will only be used in four “game-changing” situations: goals, penalty kicks (including whether or not a foul was actually committed inside the penalty area), direct red cards, as well as confirming the identity of red and yellow card offenders.

Interestingly enough, two of the most notorious moments in soccer history would not have been affected by this new technology. I’m speaking, of course, of Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup, and Thierry Henry’s handball assist against Ireland in a 2009 World Cup qualifier.

Maradona’s blatant and intentional handball went unseen by officials. Had they seen it, it is quite possible that Maradona would have been given a straight red card. Instead, Argentina went up 1-0 and minutes later Maradona scored a second goal, one that is widely regarded as the greatest goal in soccer history. After that they went on to defeat West Germany in the finals to capture the World Cup.

Henry’s assist led to France eliminating Ireland from World Cup qualification. These are two of the most iconic moments in soccer history, brought up each time the potential for video review is discussed. But like I said, neither of these instances would have been reviewed because they were not called on the field. Regardless of what technological advances creep in, there will always be a human element to sport (until of course full automation of officiating finally occurs in late in the year 2078).

From the limited examples I’ve seen thus far in the preseason, in addition to examples from last year in the USL—where the technology has already been tested—it seems like the reviews are accomplished fairly quickly and efficiently. For example, one penalty kick confirmation I witnessed took a total of only 30 seconds from the initial call to the final confirmation of the call. If the officials and VAR staff can keep up that type of quickness, I think VAR will only serve to impact the game in a positive way. And keep in mind, until I witnessed it in action, I was firmly against the implementation of this technology in soccer. But I believe every true sports fan wants the call to be right, regardless of the impact it has on their team. Integrity and fairness are cornerstones of the spirit of sport that make such competition an integral part of our culture. If that can be accomplished without sacrificing the passion and the pace of the game, then I’m all for it.

Tell us what you think in the comments below. Are you a purist, and wish that soccer would remain the one American sport that relies solely on the discretion of the officials? Or are you glad to see MLS joining the other major American sports leagues in the use of this technology?

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About Doug Mackar 21 Articles
Doug Mackar is a native of Cleveland, Ohio and attended The Ohio State University. He is a novelist, writing under the name K. M. Douglas, and works in marketing/copywriting as well as journalism. He is a stand-up comic and performs regularly at the Tacoma Comedy Club. If you only remember one thing about him, though, he'd like that to be that even while rooting for the Cavs team showcasing Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price, he was hitting the courts of Cleveland in his Drexler jersey. This is, of course, because he hopes to make you forget the fact that he is a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan. At least you know he can take a joke. Go Browns! You can catch him on Instagram @Hieronaut.