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As the U.S. men's soccer team begins a crucial year, here is what Bruce Arena's program faces

First of three parts. It's not time to panic yet about the U.S. men's soccer team. But it's a little too close for comfort.

First of three parts.

It's not time to panic yet about the U.S. men's soccer team. But it's a little too close for comfort.

The Americans lost their first two final-round World Cup qualifiers in November, leaving them dead last in the six-team round robin. That got head coach Jurgen Klinsmann fired and Bruce Arena rehired for a second chance at the helm.

There is serious work to be done, though there's room to breathe. Eight of 10 games remain, and the top three finishers will book tickets to Russia 2018. The fourth faces a playoff against the fifth-place team from Asia.

"We know that our backs are a little bit against the wall," said Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, a national team stalwart since 2010. "It's not a crazy emergency, but we are where we are right now. . . . [Arena] has come in, and he's looking to find some urgency with the situation we're in."

Arena's first games back in charge are friendlies against Serbia on Sunday (4 p.m., ESPN2) and Jamaica on Friday (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Those are the only opportunities Arena has to coach the team before qualifying resumes in March with a home game against Honduras and a road game at Panama.

There's little doubt that Arena is the right man - indeed, perhaps the only man - for the job.

As coach of the national team from 1998 to 2006, he turned the worst of 32 teams at France '98 into a quarterfinalist four years later. At club level, he has five Major League Soccer championships in 14 years for three teams.

Two of those titles came with D.C. United in 1996 and 1997, MLS's first two seasons of existence. The other three were in 2011, 2012, and 2014 with the star-studded and ego-filled Los Angeles Galaxy of David Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Landon Donovan.

"There are no real secrets in how you build good teams," Arena said when he returned to the national team's helm. "It takes a lot of hard work. It takes communication. It takes discipline, and it takes some talent. I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia in 2018."

Right now, getting to Russia is all that matters. The grand plans for overhauling American soccer's Byzantine player development system and diversifying the talent pool have been put on hold for the moment. There's a much sharper focus on the senior team's results.

Some would say results should always matter most. Klinsmann's many critics did just that, especially in the latter stages of his tenure.

Even U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati joined the chorus when he listed the specific losses that got Klinsmann fired: those recent World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Costa Rica, the 2015 Gold Cup semifinal against Jamaica, and the subsequent CONCACAF Confederations Cup playoff game against Mexico.

The failure of the under-23 team to qualify for the 2016 Olympics - with head coach Andreas Herzog handpicked by Klinsmann - was another black mark.

Klinsmann wrote many of those losses off by saying that, in his dual role as head coach and technical director, he was planning for the future as much as the present. His critics responded that those two goals were in conflict, and he should pick one. He didn't.

Arena has no such concerns. He's just the head coach. He's just focused on the present, and he isn't afraid to say so.

He also isn't afraid to publicly state his belief in American talent.

"I have a lot of confidence in our domestic pool because of Major League Soccer, and the pool of players who are now playing in Europe and Mexico are very talented players," Arena said recently. "I believe since I left in 2006, the pool of players has certainly expanded."

Contrast that with Klinsmann, who often called out players - and others - he thought weren't up to his high standards.

Klinsmann's standards weren't necessarily a bad thing. Even his critics gave him that. But his way of getting his players to reach those heights didn't always work, and the public noticed.

Bedoya and other players have noticed Arena's different tone.

"At the end of the day, we all know we have some talent on this team," Bedoya said. "When we put that together I think we can be a really good team."

Some fans and journalists claim that the current U.S. squad doesn't have as much talent as past squads did. Is there a playmaker as good as Claudio Reyna or a striker as good as Brian McBride?

It's a fair question, but the answer might be subjective. So here are some things that aren't.

Hershey-born attacker Christian Pulisic has rocketed to stardom at German power Borussia Dortmund, which might be the world's best club for developing young talent. Hertha Berlin's John Brooks has become as renowned for his stout defending as for his headed goal that famously beat Ghana at the 2010 World Cup.

In MLS, Jordan Morris scored 14 goals in his first season as a pro with the Seattle Sounders, and Jozy Altidore scored 15 this year for Toronto FC, including five in the crucible of the playoffs. The New York Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan and Portland Timbers' Darlington Nagbe have brought creative flair to their clubs' midfields and have sparked the national team at times too.

Arena knows all of that. Now his job is to put the pieces together that solve the World Cup qualifying puzzle.