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Backpass: Our New VAR Overlords

A footnote in Rapids history was achieved, as Saturday marked the first-ever game result for Colorado that was decided by Video Assisted Refereeing.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at D.C. United
Never mind the match result. It was Alan Kelly’s boys and their new-fangled computer that made the news in this match. (Pic from match in 2015)
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This nil-nil draw won’t hardly be meaningful for either of these teams down the road: Dallas, and specifically Kellyn Acosta and Michael Barrios, really should have put one in the back of the net, but both kept shooting it right at Tim Howard. The Rapids earned a hard-fought point on the road at a time when a hard-fought point on the road is almost totally irrelevant: the team needs wins, not draws. The process of ‘going out with a whimper, and not a bang’ continues.

If the game is memorable for anything, it’s that it was the first Rapids game in history to be significantly impacted by VAR - Video Assisted Refereeing. You can see it in after the one minute mark in the highlights below.

What happened here is pretty clear: Atiba Harris fouls Dominique Badji and the ball squirts out to the center circle. Then Cristian Colman takes it on the dribble another 40 yards to the right side of the 18-yard box, and dumps it off to an on-rushing Maxi Urruti. Urriti bangs it home.

Immediately, referee Alan Kelly is notified by the fifth official (that’s a thing now) that the goal looks fishy. Kelly looks at the replay, and waves it off. The first half ends, the Rapids bunker, and squeeze out of Frisco with a 0-0 result.

In short, I like VAR. I’m generally favorable and sympathetic to referees. It’s a hard job, and in general, the margin between ‘50-50 tackle’ and ‘late contact’ is determined in a split second. The job is hard, but a sport played by humans should be judged by humans, with all their flaws taken into consideration and the tools at their disposal to make the best possible decision without slowing the game to a deathly crawl. Looking at you, hand-egg throw-ball.

And VAR allows, at long last, for us to acknowledge that referees are human and make mistakes, and they can admit a mistake once in a while when it would have otherwise changed the result of a game. For those of you that missed the MLS press-blitz on VAR, here’s how VAR will be used according to the league:

The VAR alerts the head referee to potential clear and obvious errors in four match-changing incidents: (1) goals, (2) penalty kicks, (3) direct red cards and (4) cases of mistaken identity.

Only the head referee can initiate a Video Review by making the Video Review signal (TV box sign). If video evidence is inconclusive, the original on-field decision will stand. The final decision always rests with the head referee.

I’m happy with this. The game stays fluid and won’t grind to a halt as every ticky-tack foul on the pitch is reviewed; managers don’t have a pocketful of lead-ball weighted flags to toss on the field every time they get indignant about a tug of the shirt by an opposing center half. And more importantly, the head referee is still the head referee, and what they say goes - if they don’t think the video is conclusive, the call on the field stands.

It is easy to state that I’m happy with VAR because it helped the Rapids. Not true. I’m always the sort of fan that takes the long-view. I know that just as the Rapids reclaimed a point in this match because of video review, I am certain that somewhere down the line they will lose a point or three due to video review. The goal is for the soccer to be the thing that determines results from week to week, and not an errant call at the worst possible moment for your team. In the event that we lose an important game next season on video review, expect me to link back to this article and say ‘VAR giveth, and VAR taketh away. Blessed be the true judge: a hard drive filled with zeroes and ones.’ Note that I said ‘important game next season’, because it’s pretty certain that we aren’t playing any important games in 2017.

So what are we playing for from here on out?

Not much. Some folks were miffed that Pablo rolled out the same lineup we’ve seen for the past few games. I’m not thrilled, but I’m not surprised either. Until the team is 20 points out of 6th place with 10 games left to play, Mastroeni will put out the regular lineup of starters because they’re experienced and have the track record that got the team here, and because looking down the bench, most of the other guys have had chances that they just didn’t take. Joshua Gatt and Dillon Serna have both flunked tests to become regular starters. So have Mekeil Williams and Dennis Castillo. Caleb Calvert basically lost a match against Philadelphia all by himself back in May, and doesn’t play much anymore. I believe those two things are connected.

There are currently a lot of questions about this team. Once the team is ‘officially’ out of the playoffs, you can begin forming lineups that are meant to answer those questions, rather than try to win every game. Questions like: Is the 4-4-2 the right formation for next year? Is Marlon Hairston meant to be a wide midfielder or a fullback in MLS? Can we have three forward creators in Stefan Aigner, Mohammed Saeid, and Shkelzen Gashi, or are these guys all cogs in a machine that someone else needs to drive? What, exactly, is Bismark Adjei-Boateng to this team? Are our current fullbacks MLS-caliber? If Kevin Doyle isn’t re-signed, is the team going out shopping to find a partner for Dominique Badji, or are we replacing all of our strikers?

And most importantly: are the results from 2017 indicative of the need to add two or three key parts in order to rebound, or is this team going to see a dramatic eight or ten player tear-down?

The sooner the game results don’t matter anymore towards the 2017 playoffs, the sooner they become exceedingly important for anyone hoping to be a part of the team come 2018.