“There are 17,380 hockey fans in Philadelphia,” the old joke used to go, “and they all go to every game.

It may have been true for hockey. It’s very true for Philadelphia soccer, where the Union rarely get that many fans to Talen Energy Stadium to begin with.

Soccer remains a hard sell here, and it’s especially hard to get people in this town to pay attention to the United States Men’s National Team, a haphazard conglomeration of players from Major League Soccer and a few from leagues abroad pulled together intermittently to represent our country.

Further dampening enthusiasm for the USMNT is the protracted mess that is CONCACAF’s hexagonal qualifying tournament for World Cup places. The USMNT’s first 2018 World Cup qualifier took place almost a year ago and they still have two more matches to go.

But seriously, listen… they’re really big matches, starting with Panama on Friday night.

“Why should I care, and why should I watch?” you ask.

Here are five reasons:

1. They win, and they’re (all but) in

Here are the standings through eight of ten matches played:

Mexico is already locked in and Costa Rica is virtually guaranteed second place. The third and final automatic qualification position is there for the taking for both Panama and the U.S. Since the Americans’ last game in the tournament is against bottom-dwelling Trinidad & Tobago, a win against Panama in Orlando on Friday night would make the U.S. a prohibitive favorite to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Yes, even if the USMNT misses out on third place, they could still backdoor their way into Russia by finishing fourth and winning a two-match playoff with Asia’s fifth-place team. Possible opponents there? Syria and Australia. No thanks. This would be a really good time, for a lot of reasons, for the USMNT to finish third and punch its ticket now.

2. Christian Pulisic

The USMNT’s brightest young star is the 19-year-old local boy – OK, he’s from Hershey – who now plays for Borussia Dortmund, i.e., the current leaders of Germany’s top-flight league. He’s scored three times in the tournament but, aside from a two-goal performance against T&T, he has not been dominant. This would be an excellent time for Pulisic to perform like the world-class midfield threat he has been for Dortmund.

Kinkead: Quick story here; Pulisic was involved with the Union’s youth setup before the academy was built at YSC Sports in Wayne. He never really had a chance to join the U, because the opportunity to move to Germany came up soon after he finished his time with powerhouse youth club “PA Classics” out in Lancaster. But if you go back far enough, you’ll find Pulisic’s name on Union youth rosters. They used to cobble together rosters using the best players from regional clubs. 

3. The most recent last ride of the old guard

Put it this way: If you had told the powers that be in U.S. Soccer in 2014 that the 2018 World Cup qualifying bid would rely at all on Tim Howard (38 years old), Clint Dempsey (34) and DaMarcus Beasley (35), the response would have been a heavy sigh.

The 2014 World Cup was supposed to be the last hurrah for these time-tested and time-weary veterans. Unfortunately, the cavalry of young American talent that was meant to take their places just hasn’t materialized. So it’s once more into the breach for the old guard.

To be fair, they’re still up for it. Dempsey has scored four times in the tournament. Howard isn’t likely to recapture the form he showed against Belgium in 2014, but he is still more than capable of doing the necessary work at the international level.

4. Humiliation isn’t our best look

This isn’t even about some hackneyed idea that good news on the sports front will do anything to take your mind off the recent spate of devastating domestic news, or the continuing civic embarrassment that is 45. It’s much simpler than that. A loss to Panama – a nation of just over four million people – would make it much more likely than not that the U.S. will finish fourth or worse in the qualifying tournament:

Having already ceded the first two qualifying places to Mexico and Costa Rica(!), the USMNT really needs a win over Panama just to save face. Nobody wants to be on the first USMNT to fail to advance to the World Cup since the hexagonal qualifying process began.

Still, it should be pointed out that CONCACAF teams have improved drastically over the years. That’s in part due to the growth of Major League Soccer and the number of Central Americans now playing higher level club soccer on the U.S. mainland.

5. You want the USMNT in the World Cup even if you only think about it every four years

Given the uneven and seemingly disinterested performances of the team in recent times, there can no reasonable expectation that the USMNT could win the World Cup. Their ability to even make it past the group stages of that tournament would be heavily dependent on the group they would be drawn into.

Then again, that was exactly what everybody thought in 2014, when the U.S. was placed into a “group of death” and squeezed out just enough points to slip into the knockout stage, where they were a few minutes and an awful Chris Wondolowski miss from beating one of the world’s best teams. Even if it doesn’t get that good for the USMNT in 2018 (and it probably won’t), the sheer possibility of similar hope and excitement on the world stage makes earning the bid worth winning.

PREDICTION: An early goal from Panama has the home crowd silent and scared, but a Pulisic brace and a late save from Howard are just enough.

United States 2, Panama 1.