Howard Webb: We're satisfied with how VAR works in Major League Soccer
These are busy days for former Premier League referee Howard Webb, who is working for the Professional Referee Organization -- the outfit that trains and assigns referees in North America -- and has been overseeing the launch of Video Assistant Review (VAR).
The system has been in place for MLS matches since the beginning of August and has endured its share of hiccups. A red card issued to New England Revolution midfielder Xavier Kouassi in a Sept. 27 match against Orlando City was subsequently overturned by the league's Independent Panel, while Atlanta United manager Tata Martino has criticized the use of VAR more than once.
Yet in an interview that took place in the middle of October, Webb told ESPN FC that he believes VAR is working and that its implementation remains a worthwhile endeavor.
ESPN FC: In your view, how has the rollout of VAR gone, in terms of the good and the not-so-good?
Webb: We've been satisfied with the way it's gone. We always knew that it was a big undertaking for any competition that decides to implement VAR. It's a big thing to implement, and a lot of work goes into both training our people and preparing our stadiums. Me personally, I've been really impressed by the way that's been put together by MLS.
In terms of the on-field stuff, we've seen some really good uses. I for one believe it's a wonderful tool. I sit there sometimes in stadiums behind the VAR thinking, "I would have like this opportunity when I was on the field for a trained colleague to be able to check these most important plays and identify if I've made a clear error."
Repeatedly we've seen situations where VARs have stepped in, and in appropriate situations, they've either rectified an error on the field or simply confirmed to the official that an error hasn't been made. It's a real comfort for our officials so they can continue refereeing the game without being too concerned about whether they have or have not made a mistake. In that respect, it's been really positive.
ESPN FC: Tata Martino made the comment that he thought the presence of VAR was undermining the referees and making them reluctant to make calls. What do you say to that?
Webb: I think it actually has the reverse effect. I think it gives our officials confidence when they go onto the field that they've got somebody who's got their back. Whichever game you officiate, there's always the possibility that you can't see something crucial or that you make an error because the position you're in doesn't give you the answer. You don't have a second chance. You have to make that call at full speed, with the angle that you've got. You can use your team and your assistants, but they've only got that one chance as well. I think it gives you real confidence when you go onto the field to know there is somebody there to check that.
One of the things we were really strong on before launch was saying to our referees, 'Don't change the way you're officiating. Just referee the game, do the best job as you can, as you always would do based on your training and your experience. And don't consider video review at all until after the decision has been made.' By and large, we're seeing our officials do that. We don't see them making a call and then hesitating and having a conversation with the VAR to see what should we do.
We're really keen that we didn't change the basic way the game is played or officiated, and our officials have been true to that. That's been pleasing. I think also that when you make a call and you're not sure about it, you get a feeling you've made a mistake when you're officiating. Sometimes that can play on your mind the rest of the game and can affect your performance after that incident. This system gives our officials a clear head. They're able to stay in the here-and-now instead of thinking about what happened a few minutes earlier in the game. That makes them better officials.
I don't think [VAR] undermines the officials. It absolutely enhances their ability to avoid making clear errors. Of course, they still have to make subjective calls, and I wouldn't expect everyone to agree with every call because of the subjective nature of the game, but I think our officials are enhanced by this and not undermined by it.
ESPN FC: Just to clarify: The referee is still the only one who can change a call? The VAR just gives him a heads-up, correct?
Webb: Yes. The default position here in MLS is that the referee will use the pitch-side monitor to look at the play again and see if it was the correct decision. The only time that doesn't happen is when the situation relates to a clear factual matter where there is no need for the referee to have another look because all they're going to see is exactly the same factual matter that doesn't require interpretation.
For example, if a ball is completely out of play before a goal or when a player is clearly offside and there's no need for the referee to have a look, for the sake of efficiency we tell our officials to accept that information and change their call. They still have to make the final decision as to whether to accept the information -- they can go have a look if they want -- but for the sake of efficiency, we're saying accept the information.
If it's something more like a handball, which requires some interpretation -- a foul that leads to a penalty kick, serious foul play, violent conduct -- in those situations, we are staying true to our initial strategic position and going to our monitor so everybody sees that the referee is the person making the final call.
ESPN FC: So you think the referees have been empowered to do their jobs better?
Webb: I do. Obviously, this is new. We continue to learn all the time, but we do feel they're empowered. There was a long-held feeling that referees wouldn't want this, but I always felt it would be something that would be useful. Certainly speaking to colleagues when I was active and also since I retired, the vast majority always held the same view that it wouldn't be an undermining of their authority. It was something that would empower them and make them better officials.
ESPN FC: Has there been anything unexpected about the implementation or the ways referees have used it? Have there been unintended consequences? Has the implementation thrown anything at you that you didn't expect?
Webb: We were obviously one of the first competitions in the world to implement this, so we were going into something of an unknown, of course, because the sample size was really small. So we are trailblazing undoubtedly. But there's been nothing that has taken us by surprise when we went live.
We had tested the system repeatedly in 135 games before we actually went live. We used it in 25 USL games, 44 off-line games. We also had surrogate games where VAR was in position but not actually speaking to the refs or impacting the game. We flushed out a lot of situations in those games and backed it up with a lot of training. We also had a really useful week in Utah where all of the [referees] came together and worked on so many situations. That was really useful. I think anything unexpected was taken out in those situations.
I think one concern was the number of delays and stoppages in the game. Our pre-launch games suggested that there would only be one review every three games. Even though things would be checked and reviewed all the time, with 10 checks per game on average, only one every three games gave rise to a clear and obvious error that needed an intervention with the system.
We've been pretty true to that figure. When we've gone live, I think we've been pretty true to that figure, with 0.33 reviews per game. When those reviews do happen, we have to take enough time to do the review, but it's not this huge amount of time that people feared it might be before we implemented this. That's been quite satisfying.
ESPN FC: Looking back, would you have done anything differently with the implementation?
Webb: It's my job to look at every single game. I've looked at hundreds of clips. We're always refining the way we communicate. We're always trying to be as efficient as we possibly can be. I can't think of any specifics where I thought, 'This is a huge mistake.' I actually think that the normal learning we've taken -- when a mistake is made, we analyze it, learn from it and then move on to the next one -- will be useful to other competitions looking to implement this. I'm going to Switzerland in November to sit in with a small group that includes the Germans and the Italians [who are also using VAR] and FIFA to look at the protocol and if we need refining in certain areas. That's a nice endorsement of the work we've done, I think.
ESPN FC: Given the data MLS supplied, there was one instance of VAR being used that was overturned later by the Independent Panel. Is this the red card incident involving New England's Xavier Kouassi? Have there been others?
Webb: Actually the data covered only the first 91 games, so the Kouassi incident fell outside of that. The other incident was in a game involving Minnesota United and Philadelphia when a penalty was awarded for handball and was correctly awarded, but the VAR checked the play before the penalty was given and decided there had been a push by the attacker before the penalty was given. It was too low a threshold for VAR to be employed. Speaking from my perspective, the penalty was the right call in the first place, and we shouldn't have intervened. That was the only one from the first 91 games.
The Kouassi one came later. That was a situation where there wasn't a clear error on the field. The VAR picked the threshold of clear and obvious [foul play] in the wrong place, which led to a recommendation for a review, which shouldn't have happened. In the other 22 occasions where decisions were changed, we changed the previously incorrect decision to a correct decision.
In terms of the Minnesota-Philadelphia game, the VAR was diligent: He looked at the attacking phase of play, he saw some contact. In my opinion, it wasn't enough to disallow the awarding of the penalty. The penalty should have stood. That was something we shared with the group. We do a lot of consultation as well with our officials and the wider stakeholder group. I'm in contact with a lot of the clubs on a regular basis, also the Competition Department here, and other competitions around the world.
When you have something as new as this, and the benchmarks aren't established, then it's really important that we speak to people going through the same process. We share clips with the Bundesliga and Serie A quite often, as well as with IFAB. It's important that we continue doing that.
ESPN FC: You talked about how VAR gives referees a clear head. Thinking back to when you were a referee, in what other ways would VAR have helped you when you were on the field?
Webb: A clear head is the main one. What we used to call 'being able to park a decision' was always the hardest thing to do from a psychological aspect, moving on from a tough call or you get the feeling you made a mistake. You do get a sense pretty quickly from the natural reactions that are happening around you about the accuracy of the decision. It doesn't mean you got it wrong if you get a negative reaction, but it just helps you knowing there is someone in the stands looking at it from the best possible angle.
Quite often, you know the best angle on the field is one the referee on the field can't obtain. It doesn't mean they're incompetent or that they've even made a mistake by not calling something. It might be they can't even make a judgment because they cannot see from where they are. It looks like nothing, but from another angle, it looks so clear.
At various times, I can remember giving free kicks that were close to the edge of the penalty area and thinking, 'I really can't wait to see that back because that is really close to being a penalty or vice versa.' Knowing that people at home will be watching the footage that I don't have access to, they would have the answer that I don't have, and we're going to have to stick to the decision that I've made. It might be a clear error, but there's nothing I can do about it unless my assistant can step in.
Now we know that VAR will check that sort of play to see if that was a penalty, and they'll either say "check complete," which means there's no clear error, or they'll recommend a review, and we'll change the call. I can never give 100 percent guarantee.
The chance of a goal being scored with a player being two yards offside has been dramatically reduced by this. The chances of a player scoring a goal with a handball has been dramatically reduced. If the cameras don't pick it up, then that goal might stand. As long as there is a broadcast feed that shows the situation, and as long as the VAR makes the correct judgment to recommend a review -- and they do most times -- then the chance of that happening has been reduced dramatically, and that has to be a good thing for the game.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.