Video Assistant Referee Takes Steps Forward in Atlanta

Video Assistant Referee

Sunday night’s bout between Atlanta United FC and the New York Red Bulls was another stepping stone on the path of Video Assistant Referee development. The match saw multiple flash-points of controversy, and two instances of VAR usage. The system is not perfect but Sunday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was a step in the right direction.

Video Assistant Referee Takes Steps Forward in Atlanta

Call Number One

Referee Chris Penso made one of his first major decisions on the night when Josef Martinez rounded Ryan Meara and scored on the empty net. The play was put to review and Penso jogged to the VAR screen to take a look himself. After an incredibly quick replay, Penso called the goal back for a foul by Martinez on Tim Parker that allowed the Atlanta attacker to get in on goal.

In the moment, the decision was controversial and even some Red Bulls’ fans were confused how the decision could have gone their way. Upon further inspection, however, certain camera angles are able to show that Martinez did clearly clip the back foot of Parker, tripping him and leaving Martinez with a breakaway.

There has been discussion around the league since the establishment of VAR about how the head referee should make the decision in a reviewable situation. Should he look at the review screen himself, or trust the video assistant’s call in his ear?

Last Friday, Extra Time Radio hosted World Cup-bound MLS referees, Mark Geiger and Jair Marrufo, to touch on some of these talking points. Geiger provided some clarity by explaining that a head referee typically uses the replay screen himself when there is “subjectivity in the play.” This includes whether a play is a foul or not, which is exactly how Penso handled the Martinez play. Coincidentally, Geiger was the video assistant referee for Atlanta vs. New York.

It should also be noted that Penso executed his on-field review of the play extremely quickly, while still being able to make the difficult but correct call. This efficiency is what many have been waiting for in the development of video review.

Call Number Two

Mere moments into the second half, VAR was turned to yet again after Jeff Larentowicz was issued a red card for a reckless tackle on Sean Davis. Again, Penso opted to take another look on the replay screen.

Penso overturned the red card to issue a yellow instead, and Larentowicz returned to the field. This review was a bit longer than the first, but more than worth the time.

Taking just a minute away from action allowed the 36-year-old referee to determine there was no malice in the play, and ensure the game proceeded fairly, with a just number of players on the pitch.

The State of VAR in MLS

Because the VAR decisions both reversed the original calls, there had to be “clear and obvious” evidence of a mistake. That phrase has created a gray area for players, fans, and analysts alike.

What does clear and obvious really mean, and how is it determined by the referees?

Jair Marrufo likes to describe a clear and obvious error as “Something that we’re going to have a scandal over the next day.” Based on this take, it seems Penso did well to make the necessary corrections under pressure and control the situation.

“The point of VAR is to make sure that we get the most important plays in the game correct,” Jesse Marsch said after his team’s victory on Sunday. True, that is step one.

However, step two is to make those decisions quickly and efficiently, without taking away from the flow of the match. It is the harder part and the one that has eluded MLS thus far. Sunday was an impressive performance by the Red Bulls, but the officiating crew had a dazzling night as well.

The Bottom-Line: VAR is not perfect, nor will it ever be perfect. There is subjectivity in this sport and that is part of its beauty. That being said, video review is here to try to make up for inevitable errors, while maintaining the flow of play. Chris Penso and Mark Geiger did a spectacular job at using that system. Sunday’s Atlanta United FC vs. New York Red Bulls match should be a model for referees and VAR aficionados everywhere.

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