BALTIMORE — Among the 200-plus exhibitors at the United Soccer Coaches convention last week was 2019 Maor League Soccer Referee of the Year Allen Chapman, guiding curious coaches to monitors displayed in the booth belonging to the Professional Referee Organization, better known as PRO.
For a few minutes, participants could play the role of Video Assistant Referee, saddled with the task of determining “clear and obvious” errors.
Chapman, 45, is an authority on the subject. He was the first VAR to adjudicate a professional match in the United States – Red Bulls II versus Orlando City B at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. Aug. 12, 2016.
“The definition of that is sometimes blurred since what’s clear and obvious for you may not be clear and obvious for me,” Chapman said during an interview with SiriusXM FC. “That’s where it gets crazy. In a way, we’re trying to take some of the human element out of it and just the science is telling us. But in truth, that’s not the case. There’s a lot of subjectivity. Obviously, there are areas for improvement and there’s training that we go through to try to clarify what is clear and obvious.”
This is not simply an MLS dispute, but a global topic. The English Premier League was recently chastised by IFAB, the world governing body on the Laws of the Game, for failing to comply with the “clear and obvious” declaration to overrule on-field decisions.
The EPL has utilized telemetry that has led to marginal offside decisions during reviews. In addition, the referee permits the VAR to deliver the final verdict in England’s top tier, rather than trotting to a field-side monitor for their own view.
“According to IFAB and FIFA, the referee should have the final say,” said Chapman, who was the man in the middle for the Seattle Sounders‘ 3-1 MLS Cup win over Toronto FC last year. “That’s where we are different from the English Premier League. We’re kind of following protocol.”
Chapman suggested there are valid reasons for leaving the ultimate judgement to the referee managing the game on the field.
“We found here in MLS it’s better to sell the decision to the fans that the referee has gone and looked at the play,” Chapman said. “It may delay the game a little bit, but generally it’s a pretty quick view of the monitor.”
The EPL offers spectators a review on in-stadium video boards followed by the final decision. Chapman, who was in the middle for 27 regular-season MLS matches and two playoff games, said PRO is contemplating greater transparency.
“There are discussions, for sure,” he said. “On TV, they may have the same views we see, but not in the stadium. I know there are talks going on as far as trying to make it a little bit more visible in the stadium. Obviously, you also have security issues there. It could cause a little chaos.”
Chapman began his path as an official at the age of 30 after playing the game both collegiately and professionally in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
“I was versatile, everything but goalkeeper,” said Chapman, who played at Division 2 Fort Lewis College and USL Division 3 in Albuquerque. “We need more former players to get involved [in officiating]. As a player, you have a feel for the game. You can read the place you need to be to make a decision. You understand the player’s emotion, where you need to get involved and when you need to step back and just referee the game.”
That sensitivity and feel for the game led to a rapid ascent in his career. At 36, Chapman officiated in the women’s professional league WPS. A year later, he was the fourth official for MLS contests. His first MLS match as a center official came in 2012.
“Tactically, I know what’s happening a little bit better than someone that may not have played and have that knowledge,” he said. “That was it for me.”
Still, Chapman often is enveloped by players after a disputed call, like all referees. Chapman supports a yellow card initiative for those massive gatherings.
“It’s something that we’ve definitely had discussions about in our meetings, as far as points of emphasis for next year and beyond,” Chapman said. “There are committees that look at the game and how it is to be officiated here in the MLS. … It needs to stop. It does bleed down into the youth level.”
As for VAR, Chapman is gratified by the progress made in MLS since introduction of the technology midway through the 2017 season, saying, “I think we’ve done a great job at the MLS level, as far as implementing it and being the driver for other leagues who climbed on board after we got into it.”