Polak: Time for MLS to Join the Party With Instant Replay

It’s time for Major League Soccer to truly get it right.

A look across the sports landscape has shown every major professional sports league using and expanding their use of instant replay. The National Hockey League most recently instituted coach’s challenges this past season, giving teams the opportunity to have referees review video on various instances, including offsides calls. The league offices in Toronto also review potential missed calls by officials. Major League Baseball features the opportunity for managers to challenge different rulings during the game as well and uses a video review room in New York for those. One league still lacks in that department, and that would be MLS.

Recently, both local teams have had matches altered by calls, or lack thereof, which have significantly affected the outcome. A simple replay review by the head referee or assistants on the sidelines would have ensured a fair and proper result, and who knows what impact they would have on the standings. Let’s review:

Most recently, New York City FC protected their home field with a 1-0 win at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon over the LA Galaxy. David Villa provided the match’s lone tally, scoring in the sixth minute off a rebound from Ronald Matarrita’s shot. The goal was Villa’s 16th of the year, the most in MLS, as NYCFC built a four-point lead in the East and topped a Galaxy squad in the thick of the Western Conference’s playoff race. But should that have been the result?

If you pause at exactly 30 seconds, you’ll see that Villa was behind both Galaxy defenders as Matarrita shot the ball. It’s not even a question. However, MLS does not use replay to double check all goals to be sure they were legal, and they do not provide coach’s with the ability to challenge the decision. A simple ability to go to instant replay would allow the call to be reversed almost instantly. The broadcasters even noted the missed call in their analysis of the goal.

After the game, Galaxy forward Robbie Keane noted the mistake. “My initial thought was it was offside,” he said. “He missed it. He made a mistake. What can you do?”

Go to the video tape. That’s what you can do.

It wasn’t the first time the Galaxy were involved in a questionable result this month. Back on August 7, the New York Red Bulls visited the StubHub Center with a chance to earn three valuable road points against their cross-country foes. New York was able to build a 2-0 lead in the match despite losing three key players to injuries in Connor Lade, Damien Perrinelle and Bradley Wright-Phillips. The man who had a hand in the physical play against New York, Jeff Larentowicz, was never shown a red card for his hard tackles but was ultimately suspended after the fact. A simple review at a tackle might have offered the official a chance to change his call. However, a lot of MLS officiating is subjective in this regard and probably would be too difficult to judge on replay.

One thing that would be easy to overturn is a missed non-call on a penalty kick. New York was denied two opportunities to earn PKs during the match after Hilario Grajeda chose not to blow the whistle.

First, the Red Bulls had a 2-1 lead in the 85th minute when Alex Muyl had a chance help his team regain their two-goal advantage. However, Galaxy keeper Brian Rowe came charging forward and collided with Muyl inside the penalty area. No call. Los Angeles would go on to even the match at two. Then in the 90th minute, Rowe whiffed on another attempt at the ball in the box and tripped Gonzalo Veron. Again, no call. A simple review of both plays by Grajeda would have allowed him to see what he missed and give the Red Bulls the penalty kicks they deserved.

Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch was ejected from the match after the second call was missed, and understandably so. He would not delve too deeply into his feelings postgame though. “There’s calls at the end that could help us really gain an advantage still,” he asserted. “But again, I have nothing but pride for my players and the way they poured their hearts and guts into the game. And that’s what makes it difficult to swallow and hard to understand.”

After a review following the match, the league’s VP of Competition, Jeff Agoos, stated that errors were made in the match, including the missed penalty kicks and a the slide tackle by Larentowicz that left Perrinelle with a meniscus injury. He was specifically quoted saying, “Video review would have allowed for the review of these non-calls.”

Now, Major League Soccer is beginning its quest to get to where they need to be. FIFA has a new video assistant referee, or VAR, that the league is in the process of developing and testing. Here is the explanation of what it entails, according to MLSSoccer.com:

“The video review program consists of an additional referee (VAR) positioned in a booth at the stadium where the VAR will be able to access video from every available camera angle. A communications system will allow the video assistant to alert and advise the head referee on goal calls, penalty decisions, direct red card incidents and cases of mistaken identity. The head referee will then have the option to stop the game and review the play.”

This is exactly what several other major professional sports leagues already have in place. The Red Bulls’ USL team, Red Bulls II, recently played a pair of matches where the system was tested, and will be doing so again in three more this season. The time is now. Major League Soccer needs to put the system in place. Points, playoff positioning, and ultimately, MLS Cups could be won or lost because of mishaps like these two. For those who dedicate their lives to the sport year-round, that would be a downright shame.

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