On May 24, 1934, the U.S. and Mexico met for the first time, igniting what has gone on to become one of the most heated rivalries in international soccer. The match wasn’t played at The Rose Bowl, the site of Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup, nor did it take place at Mexico’s vaunted Estadio Azteca (which didn’t open until 1966).
Much like Saturday’s clash in Pasadena, the game was a one-off playoff. It took place at Stadio PNF (named for the ruling National Fascist Party) in Rome with the right to face the World Cup host Italy three days later. While it was the first match between the neighboring nations, it was also the first World Cup qualifier either had played – a far cry from the 16-match, two year marathon the U.S. MNT will begin against St. Vincent and the Grenadines next month in St. Louis.
Trying to return to the World Cup after a semifinal finish at the inaugural tournament four years earlier in Uruguay, the USA had four holdover players from the 1930 team: defenders James Gallagher and George Moorhouse, midfielder Billy Gonsalves and forward Thomas Florie.
From left: Thomas Florie, Aldo "Buff" Donelli and Joe Martinelli in training for the USA in 1934.
However, it was newcomer Aldo “Buff” Donelli – an American football player turned coach at Duquesne University – that would write the earliest history of the MNT’s rivalry with Mexico. Having been invited to join the team just a month earlier following a trial of three club matches, Donelli scored all four goals in the Americans’ 4-2 defeat of Mexico in front of a crowd of 10,000 that included Italian leader Benito Mussolini.
The kicker? Donelli wasn’t originally supposed to play in the game.
According to Tony Cirrino’s book U.S. Soccer vs the World, an alliance between the New England and St. Louis factions of the team made Donelli, who was from Pittsburgh, an outsider in the squad.
“Only later I was told that Bill Gonsalves went to [coach Elmer] Schroeder and told him, ‘If you don’t play Donelli, I’m not playing,’” Donelli said in the book.
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Donelli’s four-goal output wasn’t just a product of a good half. He sustained his scoring over the course of the match, opening the scoring in the 15th minute, putting the U.S. back ahead 2-1 in the 30th, earning his hat trick in the 73rd and icing El Tri with an 87th minute strike.
With the win, the U.S. earned the right to face Italy in the opening round of the 1934 World Cup. In a change from 1930, the tournament was set up as a single-elimination knockout and the Azzuri overwhelmed the Americans in a 7-1 defeat. Donelli tallied his fifth and final goal in the match to bring the score to 3-1 in the 57th minute. Despite impressing enough to earn offers to play in Italy after the tournament, the loss to the Italians was his final international game.
Instead, Donelli returned to coaching American football at Duquesne University before going on to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Rams, Boston University and Columbia University.
Aldo "Buff" Donelli
Donelli’s four-goal performance was the second in MNT history after the legendary Archie Stark previously accomplished the feat in 6-1 win against Canada in 1925. Only Joe-Max Moore (1993 vs. El Salvador) and Landon Donovan (2003 vs. Cuba) have equaled the feat for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
As for the MNT’s series with Mexico, the first win would be the last for 46 years as El Tri proceeded to earn a 24-match unbeaten run that was finally broken when the U.S. earned a 2-1 victory in a World Cup Qualifying match on Nov. 23, 1980 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
While Mexico still leads the all-time series (32-18-14), things have evened up a great deal in the last 15 years with the U.S. holding the advantage since the turn of the 21st century with a 13-5-5 mark.