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 in Columbus, Ohio’s MAPFRE Stadium or at Mexico’s vaunted Estadio Azteca – of course neither venue had been built yet.
Instead, 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 USA's first-ever World Cup qualifier – a far cry from the 16-match, two-year marathon both teams find themselves in the middle of currently.
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 Cirino’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.
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 (34-18-14), things have evened up a great deal of late. Since the turn of the century, the U.S. holds a 13-7-5 advantage.
On Tuesday, Dec. 18, U.S. Men's National Team and Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen was named the 2018 U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year, becoming just the second player in the award’s 35 year history to earn the honor in his debut year with the senior team.
The award caps a year in which Steffen tied an MNT record for appearances by a goalkeeper in their inaugural campaign, earned his first MLS All-Star selection, won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and was named to the MLS Best XI team. Last week, Steffen was transferred to defending Premier League champions Manchester City, which he will join during the summer window in July 2019.
In his own words, Steffen describes the importance of family, the thrills of the National Team experience and the wild ride in Columbus this year, and how it all adds up to him being ready to take the next steps …
My family is a big part of my life. I was 19 when I went to Germany, and it was tough not having them around. It just didn’t feel right. So when I joined the Columbus Crew, it felt like home right away. Over the last two years, they’ve made it to just about every home game, and that’s exactly how I wanted it to be – to have a career that I could share with my family and have them next to me while I began this ride.
One of the best life lessons my parents instilled in me is that there will always be ups and downs…both in life, and in soccer. But you have to learn from them, and when you’re going through them, you have to stay humble and stay grounded - no matter what.
And that’s the thing about me – when there are downs, I get over those quickly. You have to as a goalkeeper. You keep playing and you make the next play. I believe that mentality has helped me have some success early on, which has humbly led to a few accolades this year. What an honor it’s been to receive these.
Coming into this year I wanted to build off 2017. I gained a lot of confidence in my first full year in MLS, having a good season with the Crew. I wanted to come in and not take a step back, to start playing well right off the bat, and to work and grow from there.
I was honored to be called in to the Men’s National Team’s January Camp. We were playing Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even though the plan was for me to come on at halftime, it seemed to happen too fast. I had to warm up in 12 minutes and at the same time I was telling myself to go out there, play my game and enjoy it. I was nervous. My heart was racing, but I was about to make my debut for the national team, so I was also really excited. And fortunately for us, we were playing well so I did not have much to do.
Our season with the Crew began not long after. Gregg Berhalter and the coaching staff did an excellent job of keeping us focused amid the uncertainty on the team’s future in Columbus. They kept us updated on what was going on with ownership and all that, but at the same time they did a really good job of reminding us that we couldn't control any of it and that our job was to put quality out on the field, work hard every day, and if we did that good things would come.
- READ MORE: Zack Steffen Voted 2018 U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year
- RISING: Zack Steffen's Emergence With the U.S. Men's National Team
So that was my focus during the season – to enjoy it, to work hard, to learn, to push myself and try to stay consistent. I wanted to become a leader for the team on and off the field and try to improve my game in each area that I could.
That was also my mindset with the National Team. We knew it was a transitional era for us, but Dave Sarachan and the coaches did a great job incorporating youth and starting this process for us. A lot of us “younger guys” got time and played against quality opponents, whereas we might not have gotten the same opportunities in another World Cup year. The biggest thing we can take away was our performances and seeing the gap there is - how comfortable some of those teams were on the ball, knowing what to do with the ball and when, and learning from all of our experiences.
And personally, that game against France just before the World Cup gave me the most confidence with the national team, knowing that I could play at that level.Read more