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The SBI View: Instant replay not the solution to MLS’s referee problems

Photo by Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports
Photo by Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports

The first quarter of the MLS season is nearly over, and a major talking point throughout, deservedly, has been poor officiating. Referees have made calls that have been so controversial or poor that familiar cries for the implementation of instant replay have resurfaced across the league.

Those cries should go ignored.

MLS is in its 21st season, and, just as the league and its level of play have room to grow, so do the referees that preside over its games. There has been a steady number of infuriating and downright baffling calls made thus far, seemingly on a weekly basis, but patience should persevere as the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) finds ways to improve the way matches are officiated.

Whether that means holding match officials more accountable and pulling them from assignments – as we recently saw happen after the Nigel de Jong-Darlington Nagbe incident – or adding more referees to game-day crews to help cover more of the field, PRO should be given a chance to figure this out.

It is also not as if PRO’s men in the middle and linesmen are the only ones to miss calls. Leagues around the world and international soccer see wrong decisions get made all the time, but it is normal. Human error is part of the game, and any sport that is officiated by a living person.

Yes, other sports and leagues have introduced video replay as a way to help mitigate bad calls, but none of them are as free flowing as soccer. There are regular stoppages in every other sport, be it basketball or football, and adding a few breaks in between is not really noticeable.

In soccer, it would be. Some observers might say that a separate match official in front of a television could make a decision in the seconds that players argue the call, but what if he needs more time to really assess the play in question. Are the 22 players and referees supposed to just stand there and wait?

Soccer is also a sport with lots of subjectivism, and people view the game differently.

What is a foul inside the penalty area to one person might not be for another. What warrants a red card on a sliding tackle could be different for you than your neighbor. What is deemed a dive by some might just be seen as a fall of circumstance by many. There is too much gray area.

Where would it stop is another tricky question. Does instant replay only come into effect only on goals and plays inside the 18-yard box? Are all fouls subject to a video review given that some teams and fans might see them as card-worthy? What about incorrect offside calls that blow plays dead before anything can materialize? How do you solve that? Are incorrect no-calls that happen in the flow of the game just going to be ignored?

There is no one fix-all solution. In fact, even other sports with video replay have still made controversial decisions. Just look at the NFL.

Human error will always be part of the game and discussion as long as people are officiating games. MLS might need to take some drastic and unconventional methods to help reduce the alarming number of bad calls that have plagued the start of the 2016 season, but introducing instant replay is not one of them.


  1. Definitely agree with the sentiment that it needn’t be one or the other. I think there is a place for instant replay in the game, but I agree with Franco’s position that it is not THE ANSWER to the current refereeing issues MLS is experiencing. Better refereeing is clearly the answer there or, perhaps, adding a second central ref as was suggested in an above post. Something’s gotta give, though…

  2. I’m with Franco generally on this one

    I like replay for goal line decisions, for post game punishment reviews, and perhaps offsides calls dependent on how it was implemented, but not the rest of it

    I hate replay in the other sports, takes waaaay too long imo, and disagree with those that are saying the flow of the game won’t be disrupted. It is in the other sports seems to me and soccer is the most free flowing of all

    but goal line, offsides and post game review of incidents…I’m in

  3. The flow of the game junk is nonsense. Have centralized replay like baseball. It takes a minute for a call to the 4th official to point out that the guy rolling around on the ground grabbing his nose, eye and ear didn’t get touched above the shoulder and the ref withdraws an unearned yellow and gives it to the faker. You honestly don’t think 1 season with that would clean up all the silly playacting after every foul? You don’t think less rolling around on the ground would result in FEWER interruptions of play where people stand around and watch magic ice spray cure all those obviously fake torn ankle ligaments that we see 10 times in the last 5 minutes of every match?

    Get a clue.

  4. This article is so ridiculous that I’ve lost any analytical respect I had for Franco.

    Let’s take the Michael Parkhurst incident over the weekend. It happened in the 85th minute, so it did not have too much of an effect, and MLS has retroactive review so Parkhurst won’t mistakenly miss the next game. But what would have happened if this incident was in the 5th minute instead, and Columbus was forced to play the remainder of the game without their best defender because the ref and the AR made an egregious error? Franco, and the SBI Editorial Staff, would have you believe that we should just accept this as “part of the human element? FFFF that. There was a long enough pause during the red-card discussion that a 4th official could have EASILY taken 1 look at a reply and informed the referee that the offending party was Tyson Wahl. This would NOT have caused a break in the “flow” of the game, and could have prevented an easily preventable mistake.

  5. I’m an advocate for a second central referee. I think it’s the most obvious way to put the officials in a better position to make calls with little to no negative impacts. I don’t give much weight to the inconsistency argument and if it is a concern it’s mitigated by flipping sides at the half.

    I’d like to see some testing on replay but certainly not mid season and likely in lower divisions.

  6. Limited replay on goals scored
    -confirm the ball crossed the line
    -confirm player was in onside position

    Penalty decisions
    – confirm penalty

    Red/yellow card situations or off ball incidents
    – again…confirm what was seen or unseen

    This can all be done by 4th/ 5th guy on the sideline and a decision is made quickly

    I would actually love to see a second Center ref added to the game. Why is 1 guy responsible for nearly entire field? Get a second official in there to provide better visuals and to give each other confirmation (there’s that word again) on what each other saw

  7. Honestly how many fans go see a soccer game to watch the referee in action. If it were possible I would eliminate the referee entirely.

  8. Classic “straw man” argument – set up a position that no one is really taking (“replay will solve everything”) and then knock it down. Replay has its potential, but only in certain situations. I’m more interested in how MLS can improve the overall level of officiating, on all of the plays where replay can’t help. “Give MLS and PRO time to figure it out” is not a serious argument. Until the goofy calls that characterized OC-NE, for example, become much less common, MLS will continue to have big problems.

  9. Infantino gave a pretty revealing interview to Sports Illustrated the other day and he talks about replay, among other things. He seems skeptical about it too but says it has to be tried. So it will happen in at least a prototypical way. MLS will probably be one of the guinea pigs, as it is willing and part of the market that can palette that sort of thing.

    For purists, there are so many potential issues with it, and soccer cannot be compared to other sports. The sports legend is constructed on botched calls (Maradona ’86), lenient ones (de Jong ’10 to name just one of thousands), or impossible ones (England ’66). Neutral fans are lucky to have lived these idiosyncratic moments (will Suarez have bit if he knew he was being video’d?, would Roy Keane have gone so insanely mad?) and I believe a history of controversy is more valuable than a constant objectivity, which would be impossible to achieve anyways.

  10. I’m tired of the idea of quick but wrong. I’d rather extra time be a few minutes longer and have moments say after goals where there is an extra minute but the call is correct. The goal is to improve calls not go from a huge amount of glaring errors to flawless. In other words the smart and limited introduction of IR would still have a human judgement component. That’s fine as long as the percentage of totally bad calls starts to go down.

    Can’t MLS partner with USL to test out IR after goals and cards to at least give the thing a chance. This blanket dismissal of technology in favor of more training for baldomero Toledo is so tired.

  11. One more thing; in a low-scoring sport, the potential impact of a single blown call is way higher. I am not sure how anyone that truly cares about just outcomes can argue against it. Worst case, try it for a year, and if it destroys the flow of the beautiful game, we can always revert to the willful-ignorance method.

  12. When a serious event occurs, there is always a stoppage. Cards, goals, and penalties all involve tens of seconds to several minutes of stoppage. By the end of said stoppage the entire viewing world has seen replays from every available angle. To argue that this information should not be made available to aid the referee on basis that simply viewing it would be disruptive to the flow of the game is totally ridiculous.

    Big calls are disruptive to the flow of the game and bad big calls undermine the integrity of the sport. There should always be an effort to ensure the big calls are the correct ones.

  13. I think Franco was high when he wrote that…cut him some slack. 🙂

    Seriously, there are natural pauses in all these situations;

    1) when a player is injured
    2) while a card is being issued
    3) before a PK is taken
    4) after goals are scored

    Implementing a video review by the fourth official, who can communicate in realtime with the center ref, would be very little imposition. In 2016, I don’t really get why this still debated.

  14. How about a challenge flag? Each head coach gets 1-2 challenges per game where the ref has to stop and get video evidence on a call. Since most of these challenges would be red cards or penalty decisions, the game is stopped already anyway. And even if not, it would have a very minimal effect in the flow of the action over the course of a whole match.

  15. Franco Panizo’s argument is ridiculous. Based on his status quo mentality, mankind will never improve in anything. Pathetic!

  16. “Human error will always be part of the game” is such a weak, defeatist attitude. It also isn’t really an argument against replay. Sure, there’ll always be human error. That doesn’t mean you just sit back and kick your feet up and don’t try to improve.

    There are already stoppages when red cards are given. A 4th/5th official spending an extra 30 seconds looking at a replay isn’t going to make any significant difference.

  17. I’m all for video replay especially on every play that results in a goal or a penalty kick. The play is already stopped, the players are either arguing with the ref or celebrating the goal so let’s make true goals and true fouls that lead into goals count when it really should count. While we’re at it, I’d also like the to league review foul plays (especially dives) after each game to determine the validity of the dive/foul. Issue yellow cards to the players that faked it and let them carry the yellow card onto the next game. They’ll think twice about that dive next time. My 2 cents anyway. 🙂

  18. So.. it’s hard to figure out the ins-and-outs of how it should be used and so instead of trying it should be ignored completely. Is that really your argument?

    To hell with trying to find solutions. I’m sure if we give PRO another 20 years they might get better on their own… eventually… maybe… But probably not because other older leagues still have refs blow calls, so they’ll still get things wrong… But that’s what makes it beautiful… People blowing calls that can cost millions of dollars…


    • Just use it on goals and penalties. Have the 4th ref on a 30 second clock, if it’s not clear enough to over turn the call, then you move on.

    • I see this type of argument all the time. It goes like this. Oh, it’s hard and we can’t get it perfect, so let’s not do anything at all and live with the status quo. Stupid. With that attitude, Edison would never would have invented the light bulb.


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