Regardless of the players that Gregg Berhalter selects on Thursday when the USMNT hosts El Salvador, there will be one debutant in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying: Video Assistant Refereeing, better known as VAR.
The implementation of VAR by CONCACAF is a largely welcome addition that should improve the overall integrity of the game in the region, but in the end will only be as fair and useful as those implementing it from the individual confederations.
On January 19, CONCACAF made the long-awaited confirmation that, beginning with Thursday’s qualifiers, VAR would be a feature in the region’s major competitions in 2022 and presumably going forward. This was a move that was overdue in many opinions, but generally well-received amongst players and coaches.
VAR has been used by CONCACAF in a small number of isolated test cases, such as Nations League and Gold Cup in 2021, but was not a feature in World Cup qualifiers before the current window. The reasoning given by CONCACAF in September was that for various reasons, notably complications stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, they had not been able to suitably brain enough representatives from all national federations in the region to be able to use the technology in all games.
Now given several more months to train officials from the different member countries, they are rolling it out for the current window, meaning that the final six of the overall 14 games will have had this supposed safeguard in place.
While he has not made any public statements since CONCACAF’s recent announcement about the inclusion of VAR in the games ahead, USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter has long been a strong strong vocal proponent, even since before 2019 Gold Cup.
He had previously been highly critical of CONCACAF’s failure to utilize the technology, stating in September, “I think that’s an error. I think it’s an error by CONCACAF.”
“That’s part of the game, VAR, I think it was great that they implemented it in Nations League and Gold Cup, and it’s disappointing that it’s not part of qualifying. That’s where the modern game is going. We want to be right up there with the rest of the world, our region, in terms of the quality and the technology and we need to find a way to get that done.”
Skip ahead four months, and Berhalter’s wish has been granted. How will this impact the upcoming six games, and are there trends that could indicate whether it will be a benefit, hinder or be a non-factor for the United States when looking at overall, long-term results?
CONCACAF’s refereeing reputation has been generally in the dirt throughout the years amongst fans, and with occasional critical statements from aggrieved players and coaches. However, complaints about refereeing are a constant hum, no matter which way calls (or non-calls) are going, and every team as well as its fans always perceives itself to be the victims of systematically poor calls.
Alternatively, it’s not inconceivable that playing styles of teams or individual competitors can be a factor, particularly for reviews concerning penalty infractions. Since, in principle, a penalty resulting from simulated contact would be correctly called off, teams that participate in the “dark arts” could stand to lose a few spot kicks they otherwise would have had.
On the other hand, studies have shown that the overall number of penalties awarded in domestic leagues involving VAR have generally risen in most leagues. This could add a slight disadvantage to teams that are forced to play more on the back foot due to a deficit of talent, and concede more possession to their opponents inside the penalty area.
Again, it’s difficult to make any arguments about the style of the US National Team under Berhalter being either systematically rewarded or hurt by the ability for taking a closer, second-look at plays.
However, where VAR was used in isolated cases in 2021 – specifically in the Gold Cup and Nations League – might give some clues. A pair of games for the United States in these competitions had game-changing (or potentially game-changing) calls that were overruled by VAR. In the end, the US was benefited by the outcomes of those calls, however it was simply due to them exploiting the opportunities, in these cases converting penalties, while opposition wasted theirs.
In the Gold Cup semifinal, a James Sands foul on Qatar’s Akram Afif around the hour mark with the game still scoreless was initially ignored by the referee, but the no-call was correctly overruled to give the 2022 World Cup hosts a penalty. In the end, Hassan Al Haydos struck a comically bad attempt and the US went on to win 1-0, but the situation could have turned out very different had the Qataris not wasted the chance.
The more memorable instance happened several week prior to the Gold Cup, in the Americans’ 120-minute victory the Nations League final. In this game, three decisions were reviewed and ultimately overturned.
In the 24th minute, a Hector Moreno goal that would have given Mexico commanding 2-0 lead was called back for offside, on an extremely close call. Much later, in the 109th minute, a foul by Carlos Salcedo on Christian Pulisic was initially ignored, but a penalty was awarded upon review, which Pulisic successfully converted for the eventual winner.
Then in the final seconds of the 120 minutes, the Americans had one go against them when a cross into the area brushed Mark McKenzie’s arm, and was correctly ruled as a handball penalty after review. The end of this story is in the history books (and pictured at the top of this article), as Ethan Horvath saved a lackluster spot kick from Andres Guardardo to seal the win.
On the balance, the Americans benefited more in that game, but the story could have been very different if Guardado had converted to bring the Mexicans into a penalty shootout with momentum. Context and conversion matter.
Indeed, one could argue the that all VAR calls are not created equal; a goal that is confirmed or called off due to offside, or the awarding/reduction of a red card are decisive calls, whereas awarding a penalty only creates a high-percentage opportunity, which can be wasted. The timepoint and momentary state of the game when a call happens are also potentially important.
Still, based on the very limited sample size of those four instances last summer, it’s hard to argue that VAR was particularly kind to the US. Realistically, the wastefulness of Guardado and Al Haydos were the real sources of benefit. Beyond that, there is too much debatable context about the timing and significance of each call to make a conclusive statement.
What about some more recent cases where VAR could have been critical, particularly those happening in games taking place after the experimentation over the summer? A pair of games come to mind, specifically the two recent World Cup qualifying games between the United States and Jamaica, on October 7 in Austin and on November 16 in Kingstown.
Here, again, it’s hard to decisively tip the balance entirely one way or another, but in this case, it is clear that the more likely impact in the end results would have hurt US in the standings, even if barely, albeit with a possibly better goal differential.
In first game on US soil, there were a couple instances where Jamaica players could have, and likely should have been awarded red cards for the last defender denying goalscoring opportunities on Paul Arriola (in the first minute) and Brenden Aaronson (34th minute). The Americans won that game anyways, so main result would have been in goal differential, which could end up being important in the end.
Predicting knock-on effects in subsequent games would be, to use the famous analogy, like predicting a hurricane in Panama City resulting from a butterfly flapping its wings in Austin . Would a blow-out win in that first game have prevented the Americans from dropping the next in Panama? I won’t venture to say.
Arriola commented on the addition of VAR several days ago, just hours after the announcement, and predictably voiced strong approval considering his recent history.
“I think that bringing in VAR is is going to be good,” he said. “It’s helped leagues around the world and it’ll help international soccer.”
Commenting on his own experience with the US team, he conceded that it would have been helpful, without explicitly complaining about the call. “Especially for us, where there have been games and moments that that can be decided based a referee’s call, I think it’s good.”
“You [have to] forget about what’s happened in the past, but I think it’s a great time to to add it in such important games leading into the World Cup, so I’m excited about it.”
The second instance in the other Jamaica game in Kingstown is more critical. The 84th minute goal – and likely winner – by Damion Lowe was called back by the referee for what he perceived to be a foul in the buildup by the Jamaicans on Walker Zimmerman. In replays, this was shown to be likely incorrect, although one must concede that these are the cases where a referee’s interpretation is what matters, even in a review. Nevertheless, the prevailing suggestion after the game, not only by Jamaican fans, was that the hosts were robbed of a victory.
A hypothetical VAR-given loss in that game would have hurt the US far less than it would have helped Jamaica. In that case, US would still be on 14 points instead of 15, but still in second place due to superior goal differential than Mexico and Panama (which might even be a bit bigger in the hypothetical VAR-world). Every point matters, but it wouldn’t have been a disaster.
Jamaica has more reason to complain as it would have left them with a hair of a chance to qualify as top-four, but it still would have taken a miracle.
The American participant in that contentious call in Kingstown, Zimmerman, who arguably benefited from the lack of replay, also spoke shortly after the CONCACAF announcement about his thoughts, indicating a somewhat more critical standpoint.
“VAR has had its instances where sometimes you watch the replay and you’re [thinking] “how do they still call that a certain way?””
“I do think that in theory, and with how it can be implemented, it can be something that [provides] a an equal playing field for both teams. [It’s] no problem for us and it shouldn’t change anything about how we play.”
Mark McKenzie, who was on the wrong end of the VAR reversal last summer that gave a late handball penalty opportunity to Mexico in the Nations League final, recently spoke to Yanks Abroad, and expressed a nuanced, but overall positive assessment about its inclusion.
“Yeah, I think it’ll be good to have VAR,” he told YA. “It’s one where you look at the decisions that are made and sometimes you’re on the nice end of it and sometimes you’re not.”
“So I think VAR will add [an] equilibrium to the whole thing. I think it’s a good step and hopefully it’s handled in the right way.”
Despite his positivity, he did express the skepticism that all players and fans who have fallen victim to questionable CONCACAF refereeing also likely feel, adding “It’s CONCACAF, so you can never really predict anything.”
He elaborated on this potential for incorrect calls to still occur, expressing some slight reservation amidst his general optimism.
“It’s tough to put full dependency on VAR,” he continued. “Sometimes you see yeah, it’s a clear decision but it could go the opposite way.”
“So it’s tough to really say that I trust VAR fully but at the same time, it’s put into play now so when they go back to VAR you hope it’s in our favor.”
In the end, the question of whether it will benefit or hurt the US – or any team in CONCACAF for that matter – is unclear. This is dependent upon the admittedly biased perception of each individual fan, player or coach who is aggrieved about close calls that went against them, or willfully ignorant about close calls that benefitted them.
What it will do is, as Zimmermann suggested, is give the opportunity to even the playing field, and potentially minimize referee biases or errors, particularly in these critical final six World Cup qualifying games for each of the final eight CONCACAF teams.
Take note: I was careful to use these words “opportunity” and “potentially” in the previous paragraph since ultimately, VAR decisions are still made by humans, and are only as good as those who are controlling the technical replay, and the referee who makes the final decision.
There is still room for error, lack of training or inherent human bias, as McKenzie indicated, and there will still be countless opportunities for debate about many of the VAR decisions made in the coming qualifying games and later tournaments where it’s being used.
Admittedly, I am also occasionally one of those aggrieved fans who sees referee decisions through red, white and blue tinted glasses, and the tint becomes much darker around gametime. So, there is a part of me saying that VAR is indeed a good thing if the people using it aren’t inept…however in CONCACAF, inept is the norm in refereeing (especially whenever the ref’s calls are against the USMNT), so I’m sure there will still be plenty of room for me to complain about it.