The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) initiative is the somewhat cumbersome official title of global soccer's effort to see whether video replays can improve the game. The most recently stated ambition for VAR is to have it in use at the 2018 World Cup. To get to that level of broad acceptance and understanding by player, referees and fans, there is a lot of work still to be done on gathering information and experience from deployment of the technology in games around the world.
American professional soccer has been at the forefront of the worldwide VAR experiment. More specifically, the New York Red Bulls were involved in the first-ever, live, in-game use of VAR in competitive, pro soccer anywhere in the world. A VAR system was installed at Red Bull Arena for use in a limited run of USL games last season. The very first VAR-influenced call in pro soccer was Ismail Elfath's decision to send off Orlando City B's Conor Donvan for a tackle on NYRB II's Junior Flemmings. Elfath originally simply called a fee kick, but was invited to watch the replay by the video assistant ref, and added a red card to the call after reviewing the incident.
From watching NYRB II's experiences with VAR, we already know that it is not an end to debatable calls or the perception the referee made a mistake. Indeed, FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt was the victim of the first VAR-influenced refereeing error: he was sent off in a match against NYRB II, but USL's disciplinary committee subsequently rescinded his suspension. So a VAR-reviewed decision on the field was overturned by a league disciplinary body because...well, we don't exactly know why. USL declined the opportunity to explain its actions at the time, allowing the perception to stand that its DisCo had decided the VAR decision was simply the wrong interpretation of events on the field.
So VAR is not the end of on-field controversy or off-field debate in soccer, as demonstrated by the initiative's appearance at the 2016 Club World Cup, where it also became a talking point for the wrong reasons.
But the point of the ongoing experiment is to have these problems, confront them, and see if they can be resolved. VAR has been used in a steadily increasing variety of competitions since its pro debut in USL at Red Bull Arena, and it will inevitably have been changed and modified by the aggregate of its experiences to date. So don't expect necessarily to see the exact same approach to VAR when it returns to the American game - which it will do in 2017.
MLS has announced it is ready to host the VAR experiment. The technology is already in use in many of the league's preseason tournaments - expect to see VAR in all four of RBNY's Desert Diamond Cup games in February, for example. The league will then work on "offline testing" at every one of its clubs' home fields. By the All-Star break in August, MLS hopes to be in position to roll out VAR for the remainder of its regular season (and perhaps, therefore, the playoffs also).
A recent report suggests we should expect Howard Webb - one of the world's best known soccer referees (retired since 2014) - to take on the job of overseeing the VAR initiative in the USA and Canada.
Past experience suggests there will be plenty of talking points for Webb to defend and debate once VAR is brought online in MLS. But there is a concerted global effort to see the technology integrated with refereeing at soccer's highest levels. By the end of 2017, MLS fans should find themselves among the most familiar in the world with VAR's strengths and weaknesses.