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VAR’s misuse in the Crew’s draw at San Jose Earthquakes may not have changed the outcome, but it remains a problem

The peculiar ways video assistant referee was used in the Crew’s disappointing 3-3 draw, and why it also isn’t just the referee’s fault.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at San Jose Earthquakes Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday, the Columbus Crew was in a great position to win a game on the road, up two on a brace from midfielder Lucas Zelarayan and a substitute goal from forward Gyasi Zardes. With 17 minutes left in regulation, the Black & Gold needed to hold the 10-man San Jose Earthquakes side away from goal to prevent what was ultimately a 3-3 draw.

In the 84th minute, new San Jose acquisition Francisco Calvo got on the end of the first of his two goals. The first was from a free kick where Calvo ran through the Crew defense and headed the ball past falling goalkeeper Eloy Room. During the play, Zardes, who was in the penalty box on defense, was pulled to the ground by Earthquakes defender Marcos López.

On the second, this time a corner, Calvo leaped in the air to score his second of the game and the goal that took two points away from the Black & Gold. Before the goal, López got in on the action again, this time pulling fullback Pedro Santos to the ground. It wasn’t a foul of opportunity where maybe Santos felt a little more gravity in the 18-yard-box. No, López used two hands to grab Santos’ arm and pull him down to the ground before Calvo scored his header.

Now, there’s no reason to be in these situations late in the match, up a man and two goals ahead. Head coach Caleb Porter didn’t join the postmatch press conference yelling at referees.

“This team is mature enough, experienced enough, to not let that happen,” said Porter about the blown lead. “At the very least, win that last set piece and take the 3-2 win. Calvo obviously scored both goals so we’ve got to look at the set piece goals; we’ve got to look at why we stopped playing.”

Porter didn’t say anything about the refereeing decisions, or lack thereof, because it’s too early in the season to rack up fines from the MLS league office. Fortunately, Massive Report doesn’t have that same problem.

Also, Porter’s focus is in the right place. At the time of the final goal especially, the Crew was full of experience. Columbus had three center backs on the pitch with over 30 seasons of professional experience. Fullbacks Steven Moreira, midfielder Darlington Nagbe and Zardes were also out there, all players known for strong field awareness and defense.

Each knows what happens in the 18-yard-box on a corner kick, especially when a team is fighting for a result. The Quakes had too much room to move in the penalty area and took advantage of the Crew’s set piece defending that was lacking. It’s an area that likely will feature in this week’s training.

The problem with the goals was a total lack of VAR when the match mattered most and the inconsistency of when VAR is used. MLS rules state that VAR is used for “clear and obvious” fouls in four specific areas:

  • Goals
  • Penalty kick decisions
  • Direct red card incidents
  • Cases of mistaken identity

In the first half, center referee Guido Gonzales Jr. went to the VAR monitor twice. The first was on a call against Miloš Degenek in which the new Black & Gold center back went for the ball, but his spikes caught the boot of midfielder Paul Marie. In the play, Marie did pass the ball, moving possession forward, and Degenek came down on his foot after the ball was moved ahead. Gonzales did let play continue until a stoppage, when he was instructed to check the monitor.

The discourse surrounding this penalty was that it wasn’t clear and obvious that the referee missed the call on Degenek. In reality, Degenek did land on Marie’s foot and anywhere else on the field it wouldn’t be argued that it was a foul against the Crew. While it checks the box of a foul, clear and obvious doesn’t totally fit in a split-second play. VAR was used as a way for the referee to not have to make a decision, which came back and hurt Columbus later.

Nagbe was part of the second VAR use. In the 32nd minute, Quakes midfielder Jamiro Monteiro tackled Nagbe to the ground, earning a yellow. This is a good example of a clear and obvious mistake, and a direct red card incident. Monteiro’s cleat was up and he sent spikes into the leg of the Black & Gold midfielder.

Enter the final two goals of the match. There’s an argument to be made that Zardes' fall warranted the goal to be called back. After all, Gonzales used VAR the same way in the foul against Marie when he waited for the play to end and then have the VAR official tell him to review it. This absolves Gonzales from having to make difficult decisions.

In the case of Zardes, a slow-motion replay shows his jersey being tugged and the forward going to the ground because of it. When the foul happens, it appears that the ball is already too far ahead for Zardes to make a play. Does that make it any less of a foul? No, but the goal likely happens either way.

The grand finale of the match is where VAR was built to play a role and was ignored. On the corner kick, Santos is running into the fold of San Jose and Crew players. Before Santos can get anywhere, he’s physically pulled back and to the ground. Moments later, Calvo has one less defender in his way as he levels the match for the Earthquakes. There was no indication that it was reviewed, but it fits the requirements.

This play was an example of a clear and obvious error. It didn’t take slow motion to see the force and intent used on the play. Also, it led to a goal, making it reviewable. Could it have been reviewed by PRO, the group that referees MLS matches? Definitely, but there’s no word on if that review was completed.

Either way, the Crew now have two fewer points than the team could after the final 15 minutes of the match. It’s far too early to tell if it will impact Columbus at the end of the season. But this is an issue that happens far too often in MLS and needs to be fixed sooner rather than later.