Video assistant review (VAR) was announced in July to be coming to the NWSL next season. That next season is now (March 25) and, as much as I, personally, despise VAR as a staff, record label and crew, there’s no denying that it’s a standard-raising move by the NWSL.
Let me start by being honest: when I say I hate VAR, I mean with a passion. One of the very best things about this sport is its spontaneity, and it changes the dynamic when a goal erupts and a three-to-five minute break of a referee pacing about with a finger pressed near their ear can eventually conclude that the moment was a lie.
When VAR was sold to major men’s leagues – which all utilize some form of the technology – it was done so under the umbrella that it would correct “clear and obvious” referee errors. That framing proved to be the trojan horse people on my side of this argument feared.
Now, without fail, most matches are marred by instances of lines drawn on the screen as some definitive proof that a blade of grass, a shoe size or the length of a toenail is sufficient enough to microscopically disallow a goal – one of the sport’s most precious things.
The richest league in the world, the English Premier League, has terrible utilization of the technology whereas some of the best in top flight men’s football resides right here, in Major League Soccer. While decisions can still take a comical, then painful, amount of time (thus MLS’s penchant for absurd numbers popping up to determine stoppage time), the application of the technology is mostly fair, and the calls corrected are more frequently under the initial standard of clear and obvious.
While it’s my sincere and deep hope that the implementation of VAR in the NWSL follows the less clown car-y option, I’m delighted that it will be part of the league – for multiple reasons.
Firstly, refereeing in the NWSL has been a hot topic nearly every season of its existence. However, in recent years, this has seemingly come to a head. Players and coaches have spoken in post game pressers and on social media about the state of refereeing and poor calls that have changed games one way or another. The root of the problem is a labor issue between Professional Referee Organization (PRO) and referees who had to go to court to win recognition as a union.
The referees unionized so that they could enter into collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations to advocate for better training and resources. With regard to the NWSL, PRO also used to reserve the highest tier of referees for MLS games, while sending lesser qualified referees on NWSL assignments, giving them little support, guidance or coaching. Referees deserve better, and the players of the NWSL also deserve better.
VAR, then, presents an additional layer of protection from poor calls, and can hopefully help increase the number of correct decisions, decreasing the number of times a match is improperly affected by a clearly wrong decision, or lack of one.
Another reason VAR coming to the NWSL is so welcomed by even a skeptic (read: VAR hater) like me, is that it’s the way of the future and the only reason it hasn’t existed in women’s leagues already is because of gender. The NWSL will be the first top flight domestic league in the entire world to implement VAR. It’s been a standard in the men’s game for years, and it’s only fair to treat the women’s game with the same tier of professionalism.
The high transition nature of the league, coupled with the amount of outrageous athletes in the NWSL, combines to create a highly physical league – which, if not managed properly by the only authority figure on the pitch, can have catastrophic consequences for players’ careers.
In an interview about a new initiative called The Offseason, CEO of the project, Midge Purce, told The Athletic “that concept came together…through the fact that in sports today, players are bigger than teams.” She’s right. The NWSL employs all but two of the players to earn consistent time with the USWNT, one of the most popular teams in the world. Matchups are billed by star players squaring off, rather than the loaded histories or lores that European clubs can lean on, even when their teams are poor.
Inconsistent refereeing was not only increasing the risk of games being changed in unexpected and unfortunate ways, but in a physical league, substandard refereeing can also increase the risk of injury. By not managing the game properly – issuing yellow cards to set an expectation of what will and will not be tolerated – players in the heat of competition set the boundaries themselves. None of it was intentionally cruel, they’re athletes competing in a highly competitive league, which is why it should always be the duty of the referee to manage.
When players get injured due to poor tackles and/or consistent fouling without protection, the player suffers, and the league does as well.
While it remains to be seen how VAR will be utilized, and I reserve the right to want to dropkick my television the first time a match stops for three-to-five minutes to “check” to see if a goal we all witnessed was actually a goal, it’s an important step for the NWSL, and an important step for domestic women’s soccer.