Technology in the MLS

Games like this one brings up a fact that is glaringly obvious to those who are new to the sport - The MLS is severely lacking in technology. Every sport has accepted that technology helps the game. Tennis has added the challenge to line calls, reducing the impact of human error. American Football has added the instant replays to do the same. Hockey has added that ability to reduce the number of kick-in goals scored. The list goes on. So this raises the question - Why doesn't Association Football join with the 21st century? It also raises the question of what technology is available. As a Computer Engineer who is new to the sport, I will explore the reasoning behind the MLS decisions, and the new options available to them.

Why Soccer is Slow to Change

Soccer is one of the most free flowing games in the world, even if a foul is committed, the referees have the option to "play on" in order to allow the game to progress. The clock never stops in order to encourage players and referees to keep the match flowing. There are soft time limits on how long a keeper can hold the ball in order to encourage the ball to get back in play. Keepers can't have the ball kicked back to them and then pick it up, once again in order to keep the play moving. All these factors tell us that soccer really wants the play to flow and not be hindered by small quibbles of rules. This is one of the main hindrances in progressing the game in a technological realm - the game must be able to flow, even if technology is added.

The second, and least important, but most hindering of the reasons that soccer is slow to change is the FIFA confederation has a very long review process to allow or disallow the use of a certain technology. Since MLS is FIFA compliant, they must go through this process to add technology, or go through another process of making it a distinct difference between the leagues. In short Bureaucracy makes advancement of the sport slow.

The final point is cost and money. MLS isn't as popular as most other Major League sports, and have to be more conservative with budgeting, and technology is not one of their priorities. Each club would have to invest in those changes, and that could be very pricy.

Where Soccer Can Make the Changes

Critical Offense Verification - Instant Replay

A majority of the time, when a Yellow Card, Red Card, or PK is being given, there is a large amount of time where the players contest with the Referee, defend themselves and it turns out to be quite time expensive. This suggestion would in fact reduce the time, by making these all inconsequential, there would either be a 5th official, or the 4th official would be given access to an instant replay box. Immediately after a call is made the head official calls for a "critical offense." This is anything that requires a booking or creates a PK. This will reduce fines on players for something that hasn't been done, it will avoid a large amount of controversial Penalty Kicks, and won't add much delay in the game.

One problem with this system is that bookings revolve a lot about intent, head officials are in the game and have a better feel for the "heat of the moment." And it is almost impossible to see that while you're out of their midst. This argument could be made the other way as well, that the head official will be more separated from having to make a call immediately, reducing a "heat of the moment" call.

COST: MINIMAL: a instant replay box on the sideline on each pitch - or even a 5th official.

Note that with this solution, it provides a solution to all the other problems

Goal Recognition Systems - Goal Line Technology

This one has the benefit of already being approved by FIFA. There are two systems that have been accepted. One system uses a special ball that has an RF detectable chip in critical locations in the ball. This with combination of math will give you the exact location of the ball at any given moment (or the less expensive means which is to only have sensors on the goal line, giving you a 2-dimensional view [the plane of the goal line]. You then have a receiver system that will, upon crossing the touch/goal line, can recognize the ball. This particular implementation is very beneficial because it could add more accuracy to goal calls, but also out of touch calls, because you have the EXACT location in a 3 dimensional format, the location of the ball in relation to the pitch. The problem with this is that if a crafty engineer finds out some critical information from the ball (such as resonant frequency, and other items) could displace the reading. This can possibly be handled by the system, it really depends on how they implement the recognition system.

The other approved method is a system of cameras that essentially triangulate the location in 3-dimensions, once again giving you the same benefit of the more expensive of the RF systems (the 3-dimensional one), and can be used in a similar way. This one though, can be shielded by players (players getting in the way of the camera's angle or rogue fans who throw things in the way of the cameras).

COST (of Camera operated system): Cameras are already in use, so it would be upgrading them to a higher definition camera so that you have better access to the ball's location. You would have to have a large amount of cameras so that at any given time you have 2+ cameras looking at it so you are guaranteeing it in the 3rd dimension. This system can also be used in the offsides system (Hardware: Moderate, Software: Already developed - with either a license cost or a one time cost for the league)

COST (of RF operated system): EXPENSIVE - but provides a more reliable system of information tracking, this can also be used in the offsides section as well.

Offsides Recognition

This requires a bit more engineering (cost) but provides good value in my opinion. The most problems you hear about in soccer is the missed offsides calls or no calls, this most recent match is a good example. Any basic system would have two parts - a recognition system probably utilizing either cameras or the RF system aforementioned, and the second part is a method of informing the ref (probably the sideline ref).

The aforementioned systems would be great if they could double in the offsides recognition, and I'm sure there are plenty of engineers, if not in America, then internationally, that would be interested in helping soccer become a more coherent game. the RF solution can provide sensors in the jersey's badge (and perhaps put RF transceivers in the back and/or flanks as well) and give another 3 dimensional position of any player at any time. Once again, this is offset by the initial cost and any upkeep/engineering required. The camera system is more implementable, but requires some good ole fashioned software/digital systems engineers. once again, the engineering is where the cost is in this system.

The method of informing the ref is the main reason I can see this not being implemented - there can be as many people offsides as they want, and as long as that one person that gets passed the ball is on, then it's still offside. Any system would have to be feeding the sideline judge a lot of information that would be hard for them to juggle while they are keeping tabs on the game. With that in mind, and as cool as those systems are to me, I don't see this as a very viable system unless the google glass becomes more like some of the HUD systems in video games.

Once again, the simple addition of instant replay review would make this dynamic a lot easier to handle, after a questionable moment, the 4th(or 5th) official need only review the last few seconds, and the call can be made in a quick manner, and save some embarrassing goals.

Challenge System

This is the most time consuming of the systems mentioned, and I highly doubt it will ever be implemented, but indulge my nerdiness as I explore it anyway.

The challenge system is a method of running the instant replay system, but not have a dedicated ref to do so. When a coach sees a call/no-call that is questionable, they can use their challenge, if they prove right, the correction is made, if not, the coach's challenge is removed. Since there is a 4th official, he could easily run that without stopping the match for too long because most of these would happen in dead-ball situations anyway, and in fact, that could become a part of the rule as well.


I find the lack of technology disturbing, but can understand why they haven't advanced with the times - the cost to benefit isn't always there. But, I still, cannot see why they cannot just simply introduce the use of instant replays. After all this, that is what I get out of the lack of technology - they need to bring instant replays in, and unfortunately the calls for this to happen are only made by the losing side of one of these calls, so it's not simultaneous with any other team, so nothing will ever be done. Such is the way of a bureaucracy. But boy, can you imagine how much more important timing your runs will be if they can review it, if the chippy play in the back can be caught by the 5th official, I think it would lead to a more dynamic and effective match, and not so much about politics with the referee, which is essentially what it is become, and why RSL has found themselves on the tail end of some bad calls.

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