The 2015 Toulon Tournament is an important step for the US U-23 Men's National Team toward the 2016 Olympic tournament. CONCACAF qualifying is in October, and this early-summer friendly competition offers head coach Andi Herzog the opportunity to see how his team handles a format similar to that to be navigated later in the year.
It also provides a rigorous test on the field: the US team is in a group with France (the hosts), the Netherlands (a traditional European power), Costa Rica (a major CONCACAF rival), and Qatar (starting to gear up for the 2022 World Cup by rapidly strengthening its youth programs).
First up is France, the home team and - not coincidentally - the most frequent winner of this tournament. The French have won this competition 11 times; only Brazil comes close (champion on eight occasions); England has the third-best record with four Toulon titles.
Last year, the France selection made the final, losing 5-2 to Brazil. Its team featured the tournament's top-scorer, Jean-Christophe Bahebeck - a PSG prospect linked to Bordeaux, Southampton and Lazio in recent months. He was also part of the France U-20 team that won the 2013 U-20 World Cup (a team that included Paul Pogba, Yaya Sanogo and Kurt Zouma). Brazil's squad in Toulon 2014 included Marquinhos, also a player on PSG's books. The England team that finished fourth included Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane.
Toulon is traditionally a U-20 tournament, and France is respecting that tradition this year. In principal, this gives the USA a slight advantage: Andi Herzog has named a U-23 team; most of the American players are a little older and more professionally experienced than their French counterparts.
The France U-20 team in Toulon may include players who will one day be regarded as highly as Pogba, but they are mostly still developing as professionals. And there is perhaps something significant in the fact that the 2013 U-20 cohort won a World Cup while the 2015 batch did not make it past the first round of UEFA qualifying for this year's tournament - which is why this France team is in Toulon and not New Zealand.
Still, young defender Presnel Kimpembe has been with Paris Saint-Germain's academy since he was 15, and recently signed a pro contract to tie him to the club until 2018. Marseille's Stephane Sparagna was alleged to be an Arsenal target back in October. Fares Bahlouli is one of several promising young players on Lyon's books.
The young Americans will not take their younger French opponents lightly.