The video review system in Major League Soccer moved to a centralized Video Operations Room (VOR) last weekend.
Since its introduction in 2017, VARs and AVARs have worked games in designated rooms inside each stadium, but the new procedure will now see them work matches from a central facility.
Many of the leading sports competitions around the world have found success in using a centralized video review system, and PRO’s General Manager, Howard Webb, explains how it will work for its introduction into Major League Soccer.
What are the main impacts for officials around introducing a centralized VOR for MLS?
It will be beneficial to observe the officials in real-time so we can talk about processes and fine-tune operations. We can discuss and review key learning points quickly before and after games in a way that hasn’t been possible before.
In some ways, it will also reduce the amount of travel because it gives us the option to assign an official to two games in a weekend or two games in a day or work games on the same weekend that are thousands of miles apart.
What are the factors that you will you take into consideration when assigning double-game weekends?
We need to be mindful that you still have to concentrate intensely as a VAR so there will be a minimum number of hours between games.
We will only assign officials to multiple games if they are willing to work more than one; we don’t want to expose anyone to do a game when they are not mentally in the right place. We need to ensure that every official is prepared and focused for the next game.
Will PRO staff also be present at the facility?
Yes, but we will not be making the decisions on behalf of the officials – they will continue to make the calls as they see fit based on their training.
With the VARs and AVARs now based away from the stadium, will they still have pregame conversations with the on-field officials?
They will have contact before and after the game, including briefings and feedback, by a call or video conference. Since COVID-19, the pregame contact has been done remotely anyway because the VARs went straight to the booths to ensure the locker rooms were used only by people who needed to be there.
We have always understood that while there are pros, there are also cons. When you’re in a stadium, you feel more part of the referee crew. But other top competitions have gone the way of a centralized VOR and seen benefits, and we are confident they will outweigh any possible negatives in MLS.
What is the plan of action if anything happens to the central location and you lose communication?
We have backup fiber installed to guard against downtime, but a total failure in advance of a game means we can activate the onsite VOR – which will still exist next year – if we have enough time to get officials there.
Alternatively, we just go without it, which is how soccer has been for more than a century previously. That said, we have always managed to maintain some level of VAR coverage in every game since its installment in MLS.
Will the centralized system impact on the way you assign on-field roles as well as VAR?
It might give us an opportunity to use our best officials on a more regular basis, but everybody will still have plenty of work as we have an expanded number of games this year.
The central VOR will be operated by VARs who are a combination of ex-referees who now only work in the VAR role, and active referees working as VAR from time to time. We will be mindful of how we assign so an official isn’t overexposed to a certain club and there are other assigning rules within our Collective Bargaining Agreement that we follow.
We’ve tried to maintain loose groupings with officials who work well as a crew and with officials shortlisted for FIFA, but we have to give opportunities to every official, and we’ll assign based on merit.
How did you determine that a centralized VOR system would be a good fit for MLS?
We looked at other facilities such as in Madrid [La Liga] and Cologne [Bundesliga]. We’ve had regular conversations with leaders in this field, including those at FIFA and some of the top VAR instructors in the world, some of whom actually work for PRO, such as Mark Geiger and Greg Barkey. We have taken on board those learnings in the same way we have passed knowledge onto leagues that are coming up behind us with VAR.
Will there be any other new protocols as a result of the central location?
The same things are reviewable, and officials have been asked to maintain a high bar, but there is a slight adjustment in terms of red cards this season.
We’ve previously not encouraged reviews where the referee has given a yellow card and there is a supporting consideration for this outcome [that negates the clear and obvious error threshold], even though a red card would have been a much better decision.
Those situations should be open for review so the referee can make the final decision because if the referee looks at it postgame and says they would have issued red, then we feel they would benefit from the chance to look at it again at that moment. This will reduce missed reviews, which we don’t have many of anyway, but we are always seeking to improve.
We are also introducing some new graphics software to give information about what is happening to the stadium audience and on TV broadcasts in a more efficient manner.
How happy are you with the progress of VAR so far?
VAR has served us well and is a big positive to our competition; we correctly addressed 95 clear and obvious errors during the regular season in 2021 and we did it in a way that didn’t impact the game in terms of flow and pace. In my opinion, there would be a big uproar if we took it away because it sits in the background and does its job.
We are not perfect, and we are always learning – this is our sixth season with VAR in place. But we are getting better all the time in how we use it and moving to the central location will be another step towards that.