Consider it your World Cup appetizer. A year before the real thing takes center stage in Brazil in the summer of 2014, the junior edition of the World Cup kicks off Friday in Turkey.
Here are 13 reasons you should make sure to make the FIFA Under-20 World Cup (June 21-July 13) part of your summer viewing:
1. CAN THE USA FINALLY WIN IT? The Red-White-and-Blue have participated in the U-20 World Cup 13 times but have only gone as far as the quarterfinals (1993, 2003 and 2007). It won't help that they're in the Group of Death with Spain, France and Ghana. But with US legend Tab Ramos at the helm (he played in the 1983 U-20 World Cup) and 10 up-and-coming stars from MLS (Seattle's DeAndre Yedlin, LA's Jose Villarreal and RSL's Luis Gil) and four based in Mexico (Benji Joya, Alonso Hernandez and Daniel Cuevas), the USA can dare to dream.
2. USMNT STAR SEARCH: Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Freddy Adu, DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard all played for the USA in past U-20 tournaments before capturing the imagination of millions of US fans on the World Cup stage. The 21-man roster selected by Tab Ramos is sure to feature a handful of the next big names in American soccer. Who will step up and take over the mantle from Donovan and Dempsey? Villarreal and Gil may have the best shot.
3. HISPANIC INFLUENCE TO PAY DIVIDENDS FOR US TEAM? This 2013 US Under-20 team arguably carries the greatest hispanic flavor of any American soccer team in recent history. Many have argued for a while that the USA would never excel until it tapped into players of hispanic heritage, who have a reputation of bringing with them a special flair that can help decide matches on the big stage. We'll see if those people were right.
4. THE OTHER "AMERICAN" TEAM: One coach calls minnows El Salvador "the Uruguay of CONCACAF" for their battling spirit. Based on the US connections on the roster, it's more like a mini-USA. Soccer America reveals how a good chunk of El Salvador's roster is made in the USA.
5. UNDERDOGS HAVE A CHANCE: They don't overdo it with European teams in the Under-20 World Cup (just seven of 24 nations) and that means the underdogs always have a real shot to go far. If you're still undecided on which cinderella to go with, here they are in order of unlikelihood for success: debutants El Salvador and Cuba, New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Mali.
The Uzbeks, for one, are a confident bunch. Read what their coach Ahmadjon Musaev said about getting out of their group: "I don't see it as a real problem – we should be able to get one of the qualifying berths."
6. IT'S ANYONE'S TOURNAMENT: Between them, Argentina (six) and Brazil (five) have won more titles (11 of the 18) than any nations in tournament history. But they both failed to qualify for the 2013 edition. World powers Italy and Germany also missed out. That makes Spain (European Under-19 champs), Colombia (South American champs) and Mexico (CONCACAF champs) the odds-on favorites with France, Ghana (2009 Under-20 world champs) and hosts Turkey also expected to be in with an outside shot.
7. MLS PLAYERS IN MEXICO GREEN: If you find it hard to root for Mexico, here are two reasons to have a change of heart: FC Dallas goalkeeper Richard Sanchez and Chivas USA forward Julio Morales (both California natives) are both gunning for international glory with El Tri.
8. CAN EL TRI MAKE CLEAN SWEEP OF YOUTH TITLES? Sanchez and Morales will look to help El Tri add to their growing reputation as youth soccer juggernauts after the Under-23 Olympic gold medal (2012) and the Under-17 world title (2011). The last time they played in the Under-20 World Cup? They finished third, just short of another title.
9. WILL SPAIN OWN SOCCER THIS SUMMER? At the Confederations Cup in Brazil, the legendary senior Spanish team is looking to become the first nation to hold all three major trophies at the same time (World Cup, Euro championship and Confed Cup). But their success is also beginning to trickle down to the youth ranks, where they play a similar tiki-taka, short-passing style. They've exerted dominance in Europe (two-time defending Under-21 and Under-19 champions) and now they'll want to do it on the world stage in Turkey with their first Under-20 title since the days of Xavi and Iker Casillas in 1999.
10. FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF MESSI: World legends like Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Xavi, Thierry Henry, Michael Owen, Luís Figo and Ronaldinho all cut their teeth at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and the next batch of world stars are sure to emerge in Turkey. There are already high hopes for: France midfielders Paul Pogba (Juventus) and Geoffrey Kondogbia (Sevilla), Spanish winger Gerard Deulofeu (Barcelona), Uruguay right back Guillermo Varela (Manchester United), Chelsea's new signing from Chile Cristian Cuevas, Colombian left-footed playmaker Juan Quintero (Pescara) and Asia's reigning Young Player of the Year Mohanad Abdul-Raheem, a home-based Iraqi star.
11. GUNNING FOR SAVIOLA: The tournament goal record belongs to Argentine forward Javier Saviola (who today plays for Málaga), who set the mark with 11 goals in 2001. We'll see if any of the anointed stars can even come close. The most goals scored in a U-20 tournament? There were 167 in 2009.
12. WHAT ELSE WILL YOU WATCH IN THE AFTERNOON? With the European club season on summer hiatus, the Under-20 tournament will serve as your morning and afternoon soccer entertainment for nearly a month. ESPN and Univision (mainly Univision Deportes Network) will give you blanket coverage with every single match available either on the tube (4 on ESPN/ESPN2 and 21 on ESPNU) or online (all 52 matches on WatchESPN).
13. TURKEY GONE WILD: The tournament kicks off just as anti-government protests are catching fire and making world headlines in Istanbul. Perhaps international media coverage has blown the demonstrations out of proportion, but FIFA still had to issue a letter to the teams to soothe any concerns. And thanks to the Confederations Cup in Brazil, FIFA already has some hands-on training about how to hold a tournament against the backdrop of public demonstrations.