Whatever happens with Video Assistant Referees in global professional soccer, referee Hilario Grajeda will deserve a mention when the history is written, because he may have inadvertently accelerated the process of its adoption. His epic blundering on August 7 in a match between LA Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls was quickly followed by the news that the VARs were coming to American pro soccer with near-immediate effect. Grajeda screwed up on a Sunday, and by the following Friday, the first-ever VAR-assisted pro game in the history of the sport had been played.
And now we are told Grajeda himself will referee the second-ever competitive pro match to feature the VAR: the New York Red Bulls II home game against Louisville City FC on August 19.
"Video Assistant Referee" is the current terminology for the use of video replays by referees in live soccer matches. The VAR is an official watching just about every available camera angle on multiple screens, with the ability to notify the center ref when there are "game-changing" situations that may not have been handled correctly.
Those situations are, for the moment: goals, penalty decisions, straight red cards, and cases of mistaken identity. Basically, the VAR is always watching, and if anything resembling one of those four categories of incident occurs - whether the center ref sees it or not - the video official can invite the referee on the field to have a look at the tape and maybe adjust the original call. The center ref still makes the decisions; the VAR functions mostly as a whisper in the ear, a gentle invitation to think again.
It is a concept (using the same video replays that allow fans to berate referees from their living rooms to allow referees to correct missed calls before everyone starts shouting about them) that has been debated and discussed for a long time. In March of this year, the International Football Association Board (effectively global soccer's rules-maker) announced it had a two-year plan to examine and experiment with the formal integration of video replays into the refereeing of live soccer. The agreement at the time was for "live experiments" to be implemented by the 2017/18 season - i.e. next year.
By June, IFAB had signed up some partners, leagues and federations around the world willing to participate in initial experiments: Australia, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the USA were announced as laboratories for future tinkering with video replay. In the case of the USA, IFAB's partner in experimentation is MLS.
The plan started to take shape: IFAB announced offline testing of VARs would occupy 2016, with December's Club World Cup penciled in as the final event prior to "live experiments" commencing in 2017. It was also stated that there might be "selected" friendlies or competitions featuring live VAR testing, prior to the planned 2017 roll-out of a fuller suite of tests.
In July, IFAB brought VARs to America, staging just its second official workshop (the first was in the Netherlands in May) for the video-curious pro soccer community at Red Bull Arena.
The workshop ran from 19-21 July. The New York Red Bulls II, the reserve team that competes in USL, was temporarily moved out of RBA - forced to play a home game on July 23 at the RBNY training facility due to the need to "accommodate the IFAB workshop". Since that workshop was supposed to have ended two days earlier, we should perhaps have noted something was up.
All of which is to say that the announcement that Red Bull Arena would host the first live VAR experiments probably didn't have a lot to do with Hilario Grajeda at all, it just felt that way.
On August 11, it was revealed that NYRB II's remaining home games in the 2016 USL season would all feature the VAR. The first of those games was played the day after IFAB announced it had been "offered the opportunity" to conduct live tests by MLS.
For several days prior, MLS had been putting out fires lit by Hilario Grajeda's error-strewn refereeing of the match between New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy on August 7. The ref let three fairly obvious penalties go uncalled, provoking a rather extraordinary press release from the league, apologizing for the many deficiencies of the management of the game.
What was most extraordinary about the release was the fact it turned into a sort of ad for VAR. Concluding:
MLS will be seeking IFAB approval to conduct live, in-competition VAR experiments once the league has met all the requirements set out by the world body. Those live experiments would run through 2018-2019, with IFAB deciding on whether to continue beyond that season.
Funny way to end a statement about some uneven refereeing in 2016: "we'll have this problem fixed in a couple of years" seemed to be the message. But we found out why MLS was so VAR-fixated very quickly. The league's apology for Grajeda's bad game and the announcement that NYRB II would host the first live VAR trials came on the same day.
And now, the second-ever pro match to feature VAR will be controlled by the man whose dire performance in MLS made the news of live experiments at Red Bull Arena a timely context.
If you have a chance, go see NYRB II play Louisville City in USL at Red Bull Arena on August 19. You won't just be watching a match between the top two teams in the third division of American soccer, you'll be watching a VAR-assisted game managed by the referee who seems to need the help the most.
Keeping Hilario Grajeda from going awry again will be VAR's biggest test yet. And you should find tickets - and good seats (NYRB II games are not well attended) - easy to find.