Welcome to the Play of the Week by Paul Rejer, now part of Keys to Referee featuring referee incidents from the MLS (Major League Soccer).

POTW3 Handball VAR Intervention

In this week’s Play of the Week we are examining VAR intervention on potential handball offenses, particularly when a goal is scored.

The incident is from the game in the “MLS is Back Event” between Chicago Fire and Vancouver Whitecaps. When Fire’s Alvaro Medran fires in a shot from outside the penalty area which strikes the crossbar, his team-mate, prolific goalscorer CJ Sapong, follows up and ‘scores’ despite the close proximity of two defenders. Referee Armando Villarreal moves inside the penalty area to be closer and get a better viewing angle and AR Logan Brown from a stationary position, monitoring offside, moves quickly to the goal-line to act as goal judge. Villarreal consequently awards the goal, which is automatically checked by the VAR as part of VAR protocol.

There are four categories that are reviewable in which the VAR can assist the referee which are:

  1. Goal / no goal
  2. Penalty / no penalty
  3. Direct red card
  4. Mistaken identity

You can see Villarreal point to his earpiece to indicate to the players that the game is being delayed for a ‘check’ and he is receiving information from the VAR. The referee can initiate a ‘review’ for a potential ‘clear and obvious error’ or ‘serious missed incident’ when:

  • the VAR (or other match official) recommends a ‘review’
  • the referee suspects that something serious has been missed.

Referee Villarreal then decides to go to the Referee Review Area (RRA) to view the replay footage – ‘on field review’. This is more common practice in other countries where VAR is in operation than in the English Premier League (EPL). Following the review process, Villarreal shows the ‘TV signal’, as per VAR protocol and communicates that he is disallowing the goal for handball. You can see on the replays that there is indeed a handball offence by Sapong prior to ‘scoring’.

Law 12 states that:

It is an offence if a player:

  • scores in the opponents’ goal directly from their hand/arm, even if accidental

This is excellent use of VAR and exactly what it was brought in for. This incident highlights many positive elements of VAR. The handball offence would have been extremely difficult, almost impossible, for any of the onfield match officials to see, therefore this comes under the category of a ‘serious missed incident’. The referee was seen to have made the final decision by going to the RRA and viewing the replay footage – ‘on field review’. He also communicated effectively at every stage of the process by adhering to approved VAR protocol by firstly pointing to his ear to indicate that there was a ‘check’ taking place, then showing the ‘TV signal’ that there was going to be a review. Following the ‘on field review’ at the RRA, Villarreal clearly communicates ‘no goal’ and ‘handball’ and by following the approved procedure the players and coaches knew exactly what was going on and consequently there was very little adverse reaction, even from Sapong who was expecting the inevitable.

There has been a considerable amount of criticism regarding VAR in the EPL a lot of it justified in terms of referees not making the final decision by going to the RRA, but this incident shows the positives of VAR and how valuable it can be to referees and the game in general!


POTW2 Goalkeeper Encroachment (Proactive Refereeing)


In this week’s POTW we are discussing Law 14 The Penalty Kick, and in particular, Goalkeeper Encroachment. So, what does Law 14 say regarding the goalkeeper at the taking of a Penalty Kick?

Firstly, it says:

“The defending goalkeeper must remain on the goal line, facing the kicker, between the goalposts or goal net, until the ball has been kicked”.

 Then specifically it says,

“When the ball is kicked, the defending goalkeeper must have at least part of one-foot touching, or in line with, the goal line”.  

This is one of the laws that quite frankly has been ignored in the past by referees and goalkeepers have been afforded a certain amount of tolerance. However, if VAR is in use there is no hiding place and referees have to apply the written law.

In Sunday’s local rivalry game between LAFC and LA Galaxy, referee Allen Chapman awards a PK to LA Galaxy following a clear foul challenge by LAFC’s Dejan Jakovic on Galaxy’s Joe Corona (an unfortunate name at the moment!). Chapman shows a yellow card to the perpetrator, Jakovic for the reckless foul tackle. A number of LAFC players protest to the referee and this is somewhat inevitable when referees make big decisions. It is important that referees show confidence and composure during such a scenario and if you look at his calm body language it transmits to the players and the protests quickly diminish.

PRO referees have been told to warn goalkeepers about encroaching at penalty kicks and this is what Chapman does before he manages the players on the edge of the penalty area. This is excellent proactive refereeing. The penalty is taken by Christian Pavon and is saved by keeper Pablo Sisniega. AR Andrew Bigalow, whose priority is to monitor the goalkeeper, communicates to the referee that the keeper has moved forward off the goal line before the ball was kicked, an offence as per Law 6.

Assistant Referees

They indicate when: at penalty kicks, the goalkeeper moves off the goal line before the ball is kicked and if the ball crosses the line”.

 You can hear Chapman’s whistle as he immediately orders a retake and cautions the goalkeeper as per Law 14; which states that if an offence is committed by the goalkeeper and a goal is scored the penalty kick is retaken and a caution issued to the goalkeeper. Next season, the Law has been changed.  The goalkeeper is not cautioned for the first offence but “warned, and cautioned for any further offence.”

Before the penalty is retaken you can see Chapman warning the keeper again and when the penalty is retaken by Pavon, keeper Sisniega duly adheres to law and the penalty is successfully converted.

The instruction to PRO referees to be proactive by warning the goalkeeper prior to the penalty is ‘spot on’ and a process that all referees should be adopting as standard procedure. If the referee subsequently orders a retake there are no surprises as the keeper was clearly warned and there can be little sympathy for him!


Play of the Week – VAR Offside Decisions

The MLS has returned following its suspension due to the lockdown. The teams are based in Florida at the ESPN Wide World of Sport complex and restarting as the “MLS Is Back Tournament”. Due to the heat in Florida at this time of year the kick off times range from early morning to late at night. The particular game that is featured on this Play of the Week between FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew was scheduled for 10:30pm but actually kicked off at 11:24pm finishing the next day at 1:21am!

In this week’s POTW we are going to look at an offside decision that went to a VAR review and due to the current VAR controversy in the Premier League it gives us the opportunity to examine and compare the differences in the manner that offsides are checked and reviewed by the MLS and the Premier League and the protocols and principles in place.

In the clip we see a great ball crossed into the penalty area by Crew’s Lucas Zelarayan for USA international and prolific goalscorer Gyasi Zardes to slot home for their third goal. We can see that at the time Zelarrayan plays the ball it is questionable whether Zardez is in an offside position or not. You can see by the line of the front edge of the penalty area that his feet appear to be level with the second last defender but is he leaning forward enough to be in an offside position? FIFA referee Ismail Elfath looks over at AR Andrew Bigalow who doesn’t raise his flag. In accordance with VAR Protocol this immediately instigates a check by the VAR who is Dave Gantar with the AVAR Chris Elliot. Elfath holds up the kick off while the potential offside is being checked. The process takes 2 minutes 10 seconds and Elfath awards the goal. Part of the process was to decide whether the ball had gone out of play in the build up to the goal, hence the reason it took so long. Just prior to the decision being made the commentator (on ESPN) said, “Howard Webb has said, “If you have to look multiple times you shouldn’t be overturning it”.

If you compare Webb’s philosophy and approach to the forensic manner which is operated by the Premier League, of drawing lines across the field which has caused some great ‘goals’ being disallowed when a toenail or lock of hair is in an offside position, consider what is best for the game. What does football expect and want and need? The VAR process in the MLS does not draw lines across, so it’s decided on the human eye, the same as the assistant referee who is making the call in the first place and if it’s not a Clear and Obvious offside the goal is given. For many years assistant referees have been taught to keep their flag down and give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player, which helped make our game the fantastic spectacle that it has become. The current protocol on the Premier League is threatening to kill the game in this country by rigidly and forensically adhering to the letter of the law. Either the law needs changing or the VAR offside process in the PGMOL. Perhaps the PGMOL needs to take advice from Howard Webb and adopt the PRO/MLS principle NOW!