On the same day that the Premier League had what became a defining blunder for VAR in a high-profile match, the National Women’s Soccer League was having just another weekend in its bumpy first season using video replays.
Among the calls in question were a penalty that was unconvincingly reversed after review in Chicago and, the next day, an equalizing goal in Seattle that OL Reign coach Laura Harvey insisted afterward was offside. The problem with both decisions was not entirely human error, but the lack of technology available with which the hard-working (and underpaid) humans could make the right decision.
Both decisions had major implications on the tightest NWSL playoff race in history. A probable 1-0 Reign win was turned into a 1-1 draw. Racing Louisville could’ve pulled level, but instead the Chicago Red Stars won, 1-0. VAR, or video-assisted refereeing, was introduced to ensure such calls are right, but it may have done the opposite.
None of this drama is new for the NWSL, where defining offside calls are made weekly without truly definitive angles. In Seattle on Sunday, Kerolin‘s equalizer for the North Carolina Courage stood after a five-plus minute review by referee Elton Garcia — the official had to try to analyze an offside line from a horrendous angle that was anything but in line with the last defender.
Unlike in that crucial moment of Saturday’s Liverpool-Tottenham game, NWSL referees are not armed with two-dimensional lines to draw across a replay. They do not have the benefit of semi-automated offside, which was used at the 2023 World Cup. They also do not have goal-line technology, nor any cameras on the end lines to provide a definitive angle on would-be goals (which, you guessed it, has been an issue in the NWSL this season).
Instead, they are at the mercy of the camera angles that they have, which often are not enough to truly make a definitive call on where the offside line is. By the letter of the law — that a decision must include a “clear and obvious error” to be reversed — NWSL referees are often handcuffed to the call made on the field for lack of sufficient video evidence. Except when they are not.
On Saturday in Chicago, with Racing Louisville trailing the Red Stars in the second half, Louisville midfielder Savannah DeMelo was taken down in the box by Chicago midfielder Julia Bianchi. Referee Sergii Demianchuk pointed to the spot for a penalty kick, which looked obvious in real time. The next four minutes were spent in consultation with the VAR, Luis Guardia, and included an extended look at the makeshift monitor setup on a rolling media cart at midfield in SeatGeek Stadium.
“This is one of the most important VAR decisions of the entire season,” commentator Mike Watts said on the broadcast during the stoppage. As Demianchuk emerged from the monitor to deliver the verdict, Watts added: “Here is a season-changing decision.”
Demianchuk jogged back to the penalty area, made the universal “TV” sign for VAR review, and motioned for a drop ball. No penalty.
The decision was shocking, not so much in that it was an egregious error but because there appeared to be no evidence to support the determination of a clear and obvious error. Bianchi most certainly makes contact with DeMelo in the box. Exactly how much and how forcefully — or whether she mostly gets the ball — could only be determined by a reverse angle that did not exist. (Viewers at home are privy to the same replays that appear on the monitor for the referee’s review.)
If the call on the field was a penalty, it should have stood based on the evidence available.
Asked by a pool reporter after the game why the call was overturned, and what the clear and obvious error was, Demianchuk’s written response was: “The defender played the ball prior to making contact with the opponent.”
This is not about one referee or one incident, to be clear. VAR’s rollout in the NWSL has been hit-and-miss since the opening weekend when Angel City FC was twice on the wrong end of harsh decisions that changed the entire complexion of a home match against NJ/NY Gotham FC.
Earlier in September during a video review of a goal, referee Alyssa Nichols asked whether a player interfered with an opponent and the assistant VAR said, “We would need a different angle.” No other angle was shown to Nichols and Angel City was awarded a goal. Professional Referee Organization later said the goal should not have counted because the player did interfere with an opponent.
VAR is both a solution and another layer of complication — that is not unique to the NWSL. What is unique to the NWSL is that VAR has arrived without ample technological support.
All NWSL games in 2023 use HD cameras and fiber transmission, according to a league spokesperson. The rare games aired on CBS, including Friday’s farewell to Megan Rapinoe and the NWSL Championship scheduled for Nov. 11, utilize 14 cameras. Games that air on CBS Sports Network and that are streamed on Paramount+ have only six cameras, two more than they did for most of last season.
The slight numerical increase and improvement to broadcast-quality cameras happened in August 2022 in response to increasing problems with match streams. It was a product fix that also ostensibly helped with the implementation of VAR. All those upgrades likely cost seven figures.
Perhaps we’ve entered the era of champagne problems for the NWSL, which is part of becoming big-time as the league wants to (and should) be. Thus far, “more” is still not enough. Premier League games, to use the most extreme example, are captured by at least 30 cameras. MLS had a previous minimum of eight cameras per broadcast.
In that light, some of the issues with VAR in NWSL — emphasis on “some,” because there are still plenty of improvements to be made in the officiating overall — can be viewed through the lens of the league’s inadequate media rights deal.
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CBS reportedly paid $4.5 million for a three-year contract that expires in the coming months. (It was extended by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the 2020 regular season.) The NWSL — as in, the owner/operators of each franchise collectively, along with whatever sponsorship money comes in from league headquarters — foots the bill to produce games.
Last month, NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said she hopes to be able to announce the future of the league’s media rights before the NWSL Championship. The league has been in search of a big payday for its next rights deal, but it is seeking that in an unpredictable market filled with media layoffs — all while new, unproven players in the space unpredictably splash cash on certain properties.
League sources say that a means to an end could involve multiple rights holders to maximize the return from each — as in, go find the NWSL on multiple channels. Solutions could be confirmed in the coming weeks. Whatever those are, they matter for more reasons than just where fans can find games, and how good the broadcast is.
VAR has been a good step toward accountability in a league that long lacked it in so many departments. It will require time and continued training to improve the process. It will also require the league to double down on investment in technology to support it.