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Talking Points: VAR process at penalty kick

In the 87th minute of the MLS Week 15 match between Nashville SC and Sporting Kansas City, a penalty kick was awarded to Nashville for a foul challenge committed on Alex Muyl. After the decision, the penalty kick was set up as normal while the VAR checked footage of the incident.

However, while the referee was waiting for confirmation from the VAR that his check had been completed, Roger Espinoza (SKC) was correctly cautioned for unsporting behavior when he interfered with proceedings by disputing that the ball had been correctly positioned on the penalty mark, creating a small confrontation that the referee dealt with. Soon after, the VAR finished his check of the situation and recommend a Video Review to the referee, having identified an offside offense by Nashville’s Alex Muyl in the attacking phase of play (APP) prior to the award of the penalty kick. The penalty was subsequently overturned, and the game restarted with an indirect freekick to Sporting Kansas City for offside. This was the correct outcome.

However, a perception has arisen that Espinoza somehow benefitted his team by slowing the process down to enable the VAR to check the situation and that without such intervention the penalty would have been taken. PRO would like to clarify that this perception is incorrect and that Espinoza’s action had zero impact on the VAR process in this situation.


Watch the incident on Inside Video Review #15


Every single time a goal is scored, a penalty is awarded, or a red card is issued, the VAR checks footage of the incident to ensure the on-field decision did not involve a clear and obvious error. The game can only re-start when the VAR has communicated to the referee the words: “CHECK COMPLETE”. This is the trigger for the referee to re-commence the game.

The referee will not, under any circumstance, restart the game until those words have been communicated. “CHECK COMPLETE” informs the referee that the VAR has completed his/her check of the footage and the on-field decision did not involve a clear and obvious error, and the VAR will not communicate those words to the referee until he/she has finished the check. If the check reveals a clear and obvious error, instead of communicating “CHECK COMPLETE” the VAR will say to the referee, “I RECOMMEND A REVIEW”, which then results in the referee going to the pitch-side monitor to look at the footage for him/herself, to make a final decision. The length of the checking phase varies depending on the nature of the incident, including how many things need to be checked within the sequence and how many camera angles need to be looked at.

In the specific case of a penalty kick being awarded, the VAR will not only check the actual awarding of the penalty i.e., check the foul, handball, etc, but he/she will also check the APP which preceded the final penalty kick decision, from the moment the attack commenced to the award of the penalty. The VAR will look for any clear and obvious reason that would negate the award of the penalty, such as was the ball out of play in the APP prior to the penalty, did the attacking team commit a foul or a handball offense in the APP prior to the penalty, or was there an offside offense in the APP prior to the penalty?

The VAR checks the APP every time a penalty is awarded, and he/she will not communicate to the referee “CHECK COMPLETE” or “I RECOMMEND A REVIEW” until he/she has fully completed his/her check. In the Nashville versus Sporting Kansas City game, at the moment when Espinoza intervened, the VAR was still checking the footage and had neither communicated “CHECK COMPLETE” nor “I RECOMMEND A REVIEW”. When he identified that Alex Muyl was offside in the APP at the moment the ball was played to him prior to being fouled moments later, he recommended a review.

To be absolutely clear, the check was still ongoing when Espinoza committed his act of unsporting behavior, for which he was rightly cautioned. Furthermore, Espinoza’s actions impacted nothing related to the VAR’s check of the incident. The check would still have continued and would have reached the same outcome regardless of what Espinoza did.

Even if it was Espinoza’s intention to slow things down to ensure the VAR had enough time to check the situation, his actions made zero difference.



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