Major League Soccer will not incorporate the virtual offside line technology that has caused a storm of controversy in the English Premier League, at least for now.
Howard Webb, general manager of the Professional Referees Organization — which oversees officials in MLS, the NWSL and the second-tier USL — confirmed the decision to The Inquirer. He said the technology was tested behind the scenes in MLS last year but didn’t work right because games here don’t have enough TV cameras.
“The provision of broadcast cameras, in terms of numbers and position, is not yet as extensive in some MLS games as it is in some other leagues, and as such it was difficult to place the virtual offside lines with accuracy in certain situations," Webb said, which makes “the use of the technology not consistently viable.”
A lot of English soccer fans think it’s not viable over there at all. Webb is well aware of that. The Yorkshire, England native is one of the most famous referees in his country’s history. Before he came to the U.S., he worked for 20 years on the field, overseeing huge games in the Premier League, UEFA Champions League, European Championship and World Cup.
Webb understandably stayed out of saying anything about the controversy in England. There’s no need for him to put further fuel on a raging fire, especially given his stature. Professional Soccer Referees Association president Steve Taylor, in charge of the American referees’ union, took the same course. He backed Webb’s remarks and declined further comment.
Officially, the soccer rule book says that if any part of an attacking player’s body that can legally play the ball is ahead of the last field defender, the attacker is offside. But Premier League referees have taken this to the extreme.
A central replay booth in suburban London reviews plays and superimposes a line on the field. If just a shoulder, a knee or a few toes are astray, the goal doesn’t count — no matter how minuscule the margins are.
On top of that, Premier League referees don’t use the sideline review monitors that officials in the World Cup, Major League Soccer and many other leagues do.
All of this has drawn a storm of criticism, and the spotlight has been especially bright recently. While most European leagues take a break from mid-December into January, some of the Premier League’s biggest games are played the day after Christmas — known there as Boxing Day — and on New Year’s Day.
Webb has been at the forefront of the successful implementation of video replay, known by fans as VAR (video assistant referee), in MLS. Over here, replay officials work in a booth at the stadium, and referees on the field are given much greater latitude to use their best judgment.
American soccer fans were familiar with the perils of the virtual line before it became a big deal in the Premier League. During last summer’s Women’s World Cup, what would have been the United States’ third goal against France was ruled out because the toes of Crystal Dunn’s left feet were offside.
Even the kinds of American sports fans who insist on getting the call right in football, baseball, basketball and hockey admitted penalizing Dunn was a bit much.
VAR has been generally popular among soccer fans in America, but within limits. If MLS chooses to not use the virtual line because of the controversy it has caused, the league will likely draw praise from fans.
Webb said PRO’s goal is to “make our VAR interventions as effective as possible." Though he didn’t go too deep into philosophy, it seems the aim is to not be overly intrusive.
“The on-field officials make an onside/offside judgment and that will be considered correct unless the VAR identifies, in their opinion from looking at the footage, a clear and obvious error,” Webb said. “[It] will then be deferred to the match referee to make a final judgment by reviewing the footage at the pitch-side monitor.”
ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman, the network’s lead MLS voice, is among the many observers who appreciate the common sense.
“The way England’s done it, that’s not good enough for me — they’ve almost made a mockery of the law,” Twellman said. “I am a believer that if you’re off, you’re off. But now you’ve completely changed the laws of the game because now we’re talking about armpits and heels. Come on, your toe is offside?”
Twellman especially appreciates the “human element” in MLS of referees making the final decision.
“It’s still video assistant refereeing, not video refereeing, and it’s going to be interesting to see how that holds up,” he said.