VAR claims its first victim in hectic NWSL debut as Angel City loses to Gotham FC

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 26: Head coach Freya Coombe of Angel City FC talks with Jun Endo #18 on the field following a game against the NJ/NY Gotham FC at BMO Stadium on March 26, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Jun Endo sat on the field with her head down after the final whistle. She was exasperated following Angel City’s 2-1 loss to Gotham FC in their season opener Sunday.

Head coach Freya Coombe walked over and picked Endo up, giving her a hug at the same moment the refs were walking off the field and being littered with boos.

It was the perfect depiction of the night.

Endo is Angel City’s motor and perhaps most important player. In just one season she became an instant fan favorite, and it seemed like she added to her résumé by scoring a goal that would’ve lived on National Women’s Soccer League highlight reels for years to come. An audacious shot from just outside the center circle caught Gotham goalkeeper Abby Smith off her line and sailed over her head into the net. The 22,000 fans in the sold-out BMO Stadium erupted (as if they hadn’t just seen an absolute stunner from teenage phenom Alyssa Thompson a few minutes earlier) in a wild celebration with pink flags waving all over.

A 2-0 lead just 15 minutes into your season is an unreal way to start.

But wait.

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is part of the NWSL for the first time ever and the ref took a look at that goal, ultimately disallowing it due to a foul in the build-up play. Debatable, at best, which is usually the case with VAR. But what was also alarming was the significant amount of time it took for him to come to terms with his decision that later resulted in seven minutes of stoppage time at the end of the first half.

“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,” explained Coombe. “I’m interested to see how, if the decision is clear and obvious, why it takes so long to make a decision and be looking at replay after replay. That’s my question to PRO (Professional Referee Organization).”

It’s a valid point to raise, but it’s not new. Since VAR has been introduced to soccer around the world, it has continued to be an inexact science. Some hate it and others love it. The explanations at times lead to more confusion, now it’s just part of the game. Unfortunately for Angel City, it was the first use in NWSL and it happened to go against them.

It wouldn’t be the last. Just five minutes into the second half VAR would come into play again, awarding Gotham a penalty kick after ACFC goalkeeper DiDi Haračić was called for tripping Svava Gudmundsdóttir in the box. The protesting of the call resulted in three yellow cards for Angel City before Midge Purce converted from the spot to tie the game 1-1.

“We can’t let things that are out of our control affect us so much, and I do think we saw a little bit of that on the mental side,” said captain Ali Riley.

After dominating a good portion of the first half, Angel City seemed a bit dejected in the second half and became sloppy with the ball. The momentum clearly shifted in Gotham’s favor and Lynn Williams scored the eventual winner in the 64th minute.

It wasn’t without drama as ACFC pushed for a late equalizer in stoppage time and Simone Charley was dragged down for a foul near the box. The anxious crowd was now ironically calling for a video review as chants of “VAR” filled the stadium and fans were shown on the big screen motioning the virtual rectangle signal hoping for a late penalty. Third time might've been the charm but they didn't get their wish as a free kick was awarded instead and hit off target.

Talk about a hectic debut for VAR in NWSL.

But within is a learning lesson, especially for Angel City. These are just the first instances of many to come that will undoubtedly spark more debate and frustration. What can’t happen is allowing these calls to dictate the flow and mentality of a team. Especially not one playing in front of the second-largest crowd of NWSL’s opening weekend.

Mar 26, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; New Jersey/New York Gotham FC forward Lynn Williams (10) reacts after scoring a goal against Angel City FC during the second half at BMO Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports
New Jersey/New York Gotham FC forward Lynn Williams (10) reacts after scoring the winning goal against Angel City FC. (Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

Losing in that manner stings because it was supposed to be a party, and for the first 20 minutes it seemed like it was heading in that direction. There were of course bright spots like Thompson’s banger in her professional debut and Endo continuing to be a force.

“I thought Jun [Endo] was absolutely brilliant, always dangerous,” Coombe said. “Her goal was world class and unfortunately was obviously called back. Obviously being maybe not the right word.”

You do have to remember Angel City is just a second-year team, and one missing senior leadership in terms of star players like Christen Press and Sydney Leroux due to injury. They would love having a different story to tell about the season opener instead of complaining about calls, but the hope is that will only help fortify their composure down the road.

“We need to look at our experience with VAR tonight and learn from it,” Coombe said. “For many players on the team it was their first exposure to VAR and the emotions. I think it’s just a learning moment for all of us.”

And by all of us she definitely means the refs, too.