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MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER

July 20, 2016
INSTANT REPLAY
Human, not tech, issues may be biggest hurdle for video


By Brian Trusdell
Soccer News Net Contributor

HARRISON, N.J. – The most intractable hurdle to the seemingly inevitability of video replay in soccer may have little to do with technology or logistics and more to do with an age-old issue – the “inherent subjectivity” of refereeing.

That's at least the assessment of Todd Durbin, Major League's Soccer's executive vice president of competition and player relations who has been overseeing the league's years-long look at video replay and most recently a seven-month experimental phase in actual games.

“The technology is there, so I don't think we're going to have big challenges as it relates to technology and communication,” Durbin said Wednesday at a media roundtable discussion at Red Bull Arena following a demonstration of MLS' work to FIFA and International Football Association Board (IFAB) officials.

“For us, I think, the biggest challenge we all have to address going forward is referee training...The vast majority of cases, it's very straightforward: you can see if the player is an offside position. But where you end up spending most of your time is sort of in the fringe areas, that are actually very unlikely to happen, but when they do, are the most complicated.”

MLS was eager to show off to its international brethren the extent of its findings, using a couple of local youth teams and the cameras and equipment in place at Red Bull Arena to replicate what it has done at Portland in December in its first experiment and a couple of times since at USL games in MLS stadia.

While the teams played a simulated game, a video assistant referee (VAR) in the stadium monitored the television feeds and alerted the referee to plays for potential review. Occasionally, referee Ismail Elfath would trod over to a tented area on the sideline with a large tablet computer to watch a video replay – and maybe change his call.

MLS is one of six leagues (Australia, Brazil, Netherlands, Portugal and Germany are the others) that are in some phase of experimentation with video replay. Durbin said MLS and the Netherlands appear to the farthest along.

And while handballs may be easy to spot, if a player is offside or even if someone was tripped – or dived, the tougher calls have to do with if a shoulder-to-shoulder collision is a foul or a fair challenge.

A certain amount of that was the training Durbin referred to, getting referees comfortable with reviewing video and knowing what to look for and how, and then being able to communicate that to the referee on the field, said IFAB representative Lukas Brud.

Limiting the scope of the video assistant may be the key.

“I think one of the top points we take back...is we're not saying 'Was the referee's decision right, we're saying was it clearly wrong,” said former English Premier League referee and Brud's IFAB colleague David Elleray. “There's so much that's subjective, it's not easy to judge if something is right or wrong. More easy to judge is it clearly wrong.”

Somewhat lesser logistical concerns MLS has encountered include the differing number of cameras in each stadium, the varying locations and angles. In other countries, Brud, Elleray and FIFA representative Johannes Holzmueller pointed out include that not every game is televised because of infrastructure.

That issue extrapolated to international soccer – and the vast differences in technical sophistication in different parts of the world – is why FIFA and IFAB so far have limited tests to countries, and, more specifically, leagues.

Brud noted FIFA and IFAB have consulted with other leagues such as the NFL and NBA as to their use of video replay, and that “most leagues have similar approaches.”

Elleray said he took heart from international rugby, an official from which admitted to him that the sport has had its struggles with video replay.

“They've been trying to get it right for 10 years in rugby, and they're still playing with it,” Elleray said. “So in a way that gave us reassurance that no sport has finally cracked it, but we can learn what works rather than what doesn't work in other sports.”

   
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