There's always an alleged big club or two that’s surprisingly forced to scratch and claw down the stretch just to reach the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, so that sort of plot twist shouldn't ever come as much surprise.

In 2021, however, there are no less than four recent trophy winners who have scuffled along most of the year and now find themselves jockeying for playoff position as they enter the final turn. Why are they struggling so badly? How big is the hill left to climb? Can they end up on the good side of the red line (top seven teams per conference) when it's all said and done?

We're here in an attempt to answer all those questions best we can, despite all the uncertainty that lingers around each of these brand name clubs.

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  • Standings: 9th in Eastern Conference
  • Last trophies: 2018 MLS Cup, 2019 U.S. Open Cup & Campeones Cup

How they got here

This is a funny team to figure out, as they often look pretty good until they don't. They had the pieces to be better under Gabriel Heinze, but he clearly wasn't the right boss. Atlanta United have mostly looked better since his removal, but it's still not good enough for the East. They know how to hog the ball, but sometimes seem to not know what to do with it when it matters most. It’s up to new coach Gonzalo Pineda to figure that riddle out.

The road ahead

The Five Stripes only have two games left against Eastern top-four sides (namely Orlando City SC and New York City FC), and both of those are at home. Perhaps even better, Atlanta will get to duel fellow postseason racers five times between mid-September and late October.

Will they or won't they?

The good news around Atlanta is that Josef Martinez seems to be shaking off the after-effects of last year's knee surgery. And when they get him the ball around the box, the Five Stripes are much harder to beat. The thing is, they could fare respectably the rest of the way and still fall short in a crowded race for the last couple of playoff spots in the East. There's a decent chance that's exactly what happens.

  • Standings: 8th in Eastern Conference
  • Last trophy: 2020 MLS Cup

How they got here

I'll bet you never thought you'd see the defending MLS Cup champions on a list like this. Yeah, neither did anybody else. Injuries and international absences have hampered them all season long, but they've been stymied just as much by a lethargic attack this isn't creating enough chances. The wide players have not performed to the usual Crew level, cutting off avenues to Gyasi Zardes (who has been held to one shot attempt or less in nine of his 14 appearances). It certainly doesn't help that Kevin Molino has now been lost to another ACL tear. Even the defense, which remained a strength until late July, has buckled by conceding 20 times in their last eight games.

The road ahead

There's no easy way back to the playoffs for Caleb Porter's boys, who must face six of the seven teams currently holding a playoff slot. And they'll have to face New England, Philadelphia, Nashville and D.C. United away.

Will they or won't they?

This one's a real toss-up. On one hand, Columbus are going to need to pull off this rally to the postseason without defensive midfielder Artur. His absence has been overlooked as a cause for the 4-8-4 slump they've endured since he went down back in May. On the other hand, left back Milton Valenzuela and Zardes (obviously two other very key cogs) could soon return. If Porter can get those two in regular working order, this team still has enough in the locker room to climb above the playoff line.

  • Standings: 9th in Western Conference
  • Last trophy: 2019 Supporters' Shield

How they got here

The problems at the Banc have been large in both number and effect. It took a while to get Carlos Vela fully fit (now he’s hurt again), and then LAFC lost backline marshal Eddie Segura for the season in July. Diego Rossi went through a pair of very cold spells before shipping off on loan to Fenerbahce, which is but one reason they top the league in expected goals scored (41.4) and chance wasting (only 32 goals scored). None of these developments are good for a club prone to major breakdowns at the back.

The road ahead

There's no getting around it. Bob Bradley's bunch have a tough slate remaining, and not just because seven of 12 games are on the road. There's the always irksome El Trafico derby against the Galaxy. They also visit their next most annoying Western foe (Minnesota United), and play their third least favorite (Portland) twice. And that's before we even get to how their schedule wraps. Away to the Loons, host Seattle and then Vancouver, end at Colorado. Yikes.

Will they or won't they?

Full disclosure: I keep going back and forth on this answer. The loss of Segura has me thinking LAFC will miss out this year. The defense has been open for business nearly as much as 7-11 (they've conceded multiple goals in seven of their last nine). The departure of Rossi may not hurt as much because Brian Rodriguez looks primed to bust out in a big, fun way. Honestly, it probably comes down to how much Vela plays the rest of the way. If he can resume normal service, they should breach the West's top seven. If not, I'm thinking it's probably "better luck next year" for LAFC.

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  • Standings: 6th in Western Conference
  • Last trophy: 2020 MLS is Back Tournament

How they got here

As with many good teams that unexpectedly find themselves in this rescue scenario, injuries have been a nuisance all season long. Then there are the bad habits, and some have proven persistent. Start with the set-piece defense, which has been the league's worst. Just as bad for a team that prefers to control games with a lead, Portland can't stop falling behind early. They've leaked a whopping 16 goals before the half-hour mark, and seven in the opening quarter-hour.

The road ahead

It all may come down to the home-and-away sets for the Timbers. They have four remaining against Colorado, Vancouver, Real Salt Lake and, as noted above, LAFC. One might initially take it as a good sign Portland will play Austin FC on closing day, but they've already lost badly to the expansion team twice.

Will they or won't they?

Two wins in a row have pushed Portland up to sixth – but they've been up and down all year long. The race for the last two playoff berths in the West is shaping up to be a real dogfight, and the injury loss of midfielder Eryk Williamson removes some real bite from the Timbers' midfield. Still, Sebastian Blanco's gradually building influence and Felipe Mora's torrid form have me believing this veteran-led squad may have one more playoff run in them.

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