Columbus Crew robbed of goal by ref, assistant ref (but not by VAR)

(Screenshot: WatchESPN/@TotalMLS on Twitter)

The Columbus Crew were denied a clear goal by an assistant referee’s flag toward the end of the first half of their Knockout Round MLS playoff match vs. Atlanta.


It was the exact type of “clear and obvious error” that MLS’s recently instituted video review system is designed to fix. So why didn’t the VAR – the video assistant referee – stop the game and overturn the call?

Because he or she couldn’t.

The video assistant was not at fault. The system is not broken. There were two separate mistakes made, but neither was made by the VAR.

The first obvious, innocent mistake was made by the assistant referee on the far side. He incorrectly raised his flag when Pedro Santos was clearly onside. The second mistake was made by the center ref.

The center ref is not responsible for overruling the assistant, but with video review in place, he is responsible for holding his whistle until the situation has played out. Or at least he’s been instructed to do so. But the ref blew his whistle around the time Santos squared the ball to Ola Kamara. Because the whistle was blown before the ball crossed the goal line, by rule, the play cannot be reviewed.

So the fault is with the center ref. But it’s also a bit of a grey area. It appears to be more of a suggestion than actual law of the game. The following two paragraphs are from a Goal interview with Howard Webb, MLS’s manager of VAR operations, this past summer:

“Will the assistants be more tempted to keep the flag down [on offside decisions] because they know they’ve got the safety net of VAR?” Webb said. “Well we’re saying to them, ‘Don’t do that. If you’ve got doubt, give the benefit of the doubt to the attack, but don’t change the basic way the game is being officiated from your side.'”

The only instruction given to referees on this matter relates to the timing of a whistle. Because a goal cannot be reviewed if the ball goes in the net after a whistle, referees have been told to hold off on blowing a play dead for offside or a foul until they see if an immediate shot goes in.

Interestingly, one minute into the second half, a similar situation arose on the same end of the field, but this time with Atlanta attacking. The same assistant ref raised his flag for offside. This time the center ref waited to blow his whistle until a shot had been taken. It was saved by Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

Replays later showed that the Atlanta player might actually have been onside. So, had Steffen not made that save, because the ref waited to whistle the play dead, the video assistant could have intervened. Unfortunately for Columbus, the ref wasn’t so patient in the first half.

The game remained tied at 0-0 after 90 minutes, and headed to extra time.