Like other standout seniors, Manuel Ferriol is waiting.
The James Madison star, who finished the 2019 campaign with 16 goals and six assists, could end up as a first-round draft pick on January 9 when the MLS Draft begins.
But the combination of being a native of Spain, and the potential for MLS sides to save international slots for more established professionals, makes his future cloudy. That would be neglecting a top-tier talent, however, as over the past two seasons, Ferriol has established himself as one of college soccer’s best players.
His coach at JMU is a big believer in Ferriol’s ability to play at that level.
“I’ve seen a lot of players get drafted and go play in the MLS – Manu is a no-brainer talent wise, it’s just will he match up in the right system and will a coach understand what he does and how he goes about it to be effective,” head coach Paul Zazenski told topdrawersoccer.com.
Ferriol’s rise took time to material -- a testament to how the college game can still nurture and improve talent. Originally spotted by Zazenski (who was an assistant coach at the time) at a combine in Spain, he struggled in the fall of his freshman year. Only 17 when he arrived on campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the pace of play and adaptation was relatively rocky for a midfielder that is superb with the ball but lacking in elite athleticism.
“The biggest thing is he took too many touches in his first year, he was trying to do far too much every time he got on the ball,” Zazenski said. “Defenders would just close him down really quickly and be super physical with him so he wasn’t having any success and he wasn’t getting in any good spots. He wasn’t really used to the up-and-down play of Division I.”
Then of course, there was the demands of adjusting to a completely new life. Ferriol, who came from more temperate climates from coastal Spain, went through the process of waking up early for training in frigid temperatures. Not to mention the challenge of forging a new path so far from everything that he was used to.
“It was kind of hard at the beginning, you leave your friends and family behind,” he said. “I had been living my whole life in Valencia in Spain. It’s kind of hard to adapt to a new culture, make new friends and meet new people.”
And then there was the on-field adaptation as well. Ferriol, who played as a No. 6 in Spain, experienced a completely different game when he arrived at JMU.
“The style is pretty different from Europe to here,” he said. “In Spain it’s really technical that like to play with the ball, and here the first difference I saw in America were more physical players. Usually all of them are faster than me and stronger than me.”
The numbers bore out from his freshman season, as he didn’t score a goal and played just eight games during the 2016 campaign. But Ferriol sat down with his family when he was back in Spain for the holidays, and felt comfortable with the idea of continuing at James Madison. Tom Foley, head coach of the program at the time (Zazenski was tabbed head coach ahead of the 2018 season), kept him at the program.
Zazenski, having been impressed by Ferriol’s ability to generate magic moments during the scouting process, continued to see it despite the Spaniard’s struggles as a freshman.
“We do something kind of unique in the spring where we track everybody’s goals and assists in training and we keep statistics, and he kept on leading statistics every spring,” Zazenski said. “We knew we had something there, you could see it in training from time-to-time, he would take over training and score some wonder goals. We knew we had something special, but we just didn’t know how long it would take to get it out of him. Each spring and each season he would kind of progress a little bit in all aspects: got a little bit stronger, little bit faster, he played quicker, so I think it kind of just clicked after his second year.”
Seven goals in 17 games, including nine starts as a sophomore, started to convert those flashes in training into regular-season contributions. As a junior, Ferriol was part of JMU’s sensational 2018 campaign. Scoring nine goals and adding five assists, he helped lead the Dukes to the CAA regular season and conference tournament titles. The team lost 1-0 in the NCAA quarterfinals to Michigan State, a game Ferriol missed due to a red card he received in the second round of the tournament.
His final season of college soccer, with JMU down a goal scorer due to injury, Zazenski tried to leverage all of the work Ferriol had put in off the field to help him hit his potential between the lines.
And it clearly had a positive impact, as Ferriol was able to find the ball in more dangerous spots during his final season.
“We really worked on showing him video and in training moments, kind of understanding he has to be patient and let the buildup happen,” Zazenski said. “And once the buildup happens, that’s where he’s got to do the same thing, which is find the ball. A testament to him, that was kind of the biggest difference, is positionally he was staying a lot higher. We press a lot in our system, so we said to him ‘look, if you press and you’re fit, you’re going to find the ball in a higher position a lot more often, than if you are checking back to the ball and you’re finding it beneath the mid-lines.’ He really listened to that, he came in fit, worked extremely hard on the defensive end, that’s another area of progression. He didn’t really defend at a high rate early on, and in his last season he was buzzing around trying to win the ball off the [opposition].”
Another element of Ferriol’s success was a challenge from the coaching staff to step up.
“We had really good players and we basically we lost one important player in every line [from the 2018 squad],” Ferriol said. “One defender, one midfielder and one striker that were seniors. At the end of , coach told me, this is your season. You have to step it up, I have a lot of confidence in you. I think I took the challenge and I was lucky to have a great season for the team.”
That helped him excel in a No. 10 role last fall, scoring 16 goals and chipping in six assists. He was named CAA Player of the Year, and put himself on the radar for this week’s MLS draft. He was invited to the MLS College Showcase in December, and earned positive reviews as he tries to carve out a role anywhere in central midfield.
Of course, from there, it now comes down to factors out of Ferriol’s control. In a league such as MLS, slower, more technical international players from college can be muscled out. A recent case is Wake Forest star Jon Bakero, who was barely given a chance by either Chicago or Toronto after a stellar 2017 campaign at Wake Forest where he scored 16 goals and added 14 assists.
Ferriol, who has learned a great deal about MLS since coming to JMU, now has to wait and see which team gives him a shot.
"Since I came here I have been following it, obviously I want to play there so I want to learn more about the games, all the players and how they play," he said. "I’ve been following a few teams that I think play very good and they fit my style of soccer. I have seen since I came here the league has grown a lot."
His coach has faith.
“Ultimately, I just think it’s going to come down to the international spot and are they willing to look past the lack of athleticism,” Zazenski said. “He’s just not a guy that’s going to blow by anyone. He can’t beat you off the dribble – he can if he megs you, which he’s phenomenal at – it’s got to be within the right system… It’s got to be a little more possession oriented and maybe where players behind him can make the game for him a bit and create chances and he can do what he does, which is whenever he has the ball on his foot, he can score or assist.”