The NWSL’s debut of VAR adds controversy to referee concerns
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The NWSL’s debut of VAR adds controversy to referee concerns

It was an early candidate for NWSL Goal of the Year: On Sunday, Angel City FC's Jun Endo lofted a perfect shot from 40 yards over NY/NJ Gotham FC goalkeeper Abby Smith and into the back of the net. Angel City were 2-0 up and looked to be cruising, and the sellout crowd in Los Angeles was buzzing.

Until they weren't.

VAR struck, calling over referee Elijio Arreguin to have a look at the sequence, and he proceeded to wave off the goal due to a foul from Angel City midfielder Dani Weatherholt in the run-up. The goal and the precious momentum it provided were gone. As the crowd was robbed of a big moment in Angel City's 2023 season opener, all that remains is the dubious distinction of the goal being the first in NWSL history to be overturned by VAR.

It wasn't the last time VAR and Arreguin would have their say either. In the 51st minute, Angel City goalkeeper DiDi Haracic was adjudged to have taken down Gotham's Svava Gudmundsdóttir in the penalty area, but only after VAR intervened. The ensuing 55th-minute penalty was dispatched by Gotham's Midge Purce and breathed plenty of life into the visitors, propelling them to eventually grab a well-taken game winner from Lynn Williams 10 minutes later.

And so what looked set to be an Angel City celebration turned into a 2-1 defeat. There are still 21 regular-season games left, plus the NWSL Challenge Cup, but it wasn't the kind of start that Angel City was hoping for in front of a sellout home crowd.

VAR is making its NWSL debut this season. It was adopted at the behest of Players and coaches who complained about the standard of refereeing in the league.

Case in point was an incident involving these same two teams last season on Aug. 28. On that occasion Gotham FC was robbed of a perfectly legitimate goal when Ifeoma Onumonu's shot was judged to have gone out for a corner instead of over the goal line, in what was eventually a 3-1 loss. The error was so blatant that the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) felt compelled to call it out as "an egregious officiating error."

So, PRO went about trying to prepare its NWSL referees -- those in MLS have been using VAR since 2017 -- beginning with a VAR training regimen back in September. The Players were hopeful, but realistic.

"I don't think [the refereeing] can get any worse, you know what I mean?" San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan told ESPN prior to the start of the season. "I feel like the refereeing wasn't at a high point in the last couple of years, and hopefully VAR can help reverse some errors that referees can make. That's the hope, that's the point of it."

But after a relatively incident-free opening day of the 2023 season, the next day brought Sunday's controversy. Of the two incidents, Endo's disallowed goal looked to be the more egregious. Weatherholt appeared to be attempting to shield the ball from Gotham's Kelley O'Hara, and Arreguin was staring right at the play as it unfolded. But the video assistant referee recommended an additional review, and Weatherholt was judged to have tripped O'Hara instead.

"In the opening weekend, we had the first review recommended in the 15th minute of the match between Angel City FC and NJ/NY Gotham FC for a foul in the attacking phase of play, which led to the goal scored by Angel City," PRO told ESPN via email. "When the VAR analyzed the challenge near midfield, he determined that Angel City #17, Danielle Weatherholt had tripped Gotham #5, Kelley O'Hara. The referee went to the RRA [Referee Review Area], looked at the play, agreed with the VAR and decided to disallow the goal and restart with a direct free kick to NJ/NY Gotham FC."

Regardless of PRO's explanation, it looked like a call that could have gone either way, which would seem to fly in the face of the PRO's mantra to overturn only "clear and obvious" errors and not try to live in the gray area of 50-50 calls. That, along with the fact that it took a shade under three minutes to disallow the goal, is what stuck in the craw of Angel City manager Freya Coombe afterward.

"I think when we had our training in terms of VAR, it was understood that for a decision to be overturned there had to be a clear and obvious error from the referee," she told reporters after the match. "I'm interested to see how, if a decision is clear and obvious, why it takes so long to be making a decision and looking at replay after replay on the halfway line, if it is such an obvious error. That's my question to PRO."

Gotham counterpart Juan Carlos Amoros admitted the disallowed goal gave his team "energy," and he unsurprisingly thought the call was correct.

"I have no doubt it was a foul," said Amoros after the match. He added: "It has a massive impact to bring fairness to the game ... It's proven already that it's a good tool."

The incident drove home the fact that VAR's presence doesn't guarantee perfection, just more precision. It also shows that everyone loves VAR as a concept -- until they're punched in the face by it. And as helpful as the technology is, human beings are still the ones making the ultimate decision on things such as whether a penalty occurred, and if a goal should stand.

There is the sense that VAR's introduction is part of a broader push to invest in the league, not only in terms of dollars but in raising standards within the NWSL. But as with any change, there are going to be growing pains.

"It shows the league are investing in terms of getting decisions right and helping officials," Wave manager Casey Stoney told ESPN just before last weekend's season openers. "It's going to take time. The officials haven't worked with it for long. We know that there's going to be errors, there's going to be mistakes, there's going to be human error, as there is in all of us. So we have to be patient with it."

Among those growing pains will be where the line is drawn in terms of which incidents should disallow a goal and which ones shouldn't. That will likely evolve as the season goes on.

In terms of the patience that Stoney alluded to, that was certainly in short supply at BMO Stadium last Sunday. In the game's final minutes, fans were chanting "VAR!" after Simone Charley was taken down outside the box. (The calls went unheeded, and no penalty was awarded.) But if VAR's implementation in other leagues around the world is any indication, patience is a virtue that Players, coaches and fans are going to need plenty of as the season wears on.

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