By Tom Dunmore – CHICAGO, IL (Mar 25, 2013) US Soccer Players - The USA – Mexico rivalry will reignite tonight at the Azteca in yet another World Cup qualifier between the two CONCACAF giants. It’s a rivalry that stretches back some 79 years from the two nations’ first meeting in 1934, though for almost all of the twentieth century, it was a lopsided battle. The US only defeated Mexico five times in that time, lost 27 times and tied on nine occasions. Things only began to change relatively recently. In the 2000s, the US has an impressive 11-5-3 record against El Tri.
Let’s take a look back at the early days of the rivalry in the 1930s, when Mexico established a dominance over the US it would enjoy for a further six decades, but one that began with a dramatic victory for the Americans.
In 1934, the United States played Mexico for the first time, nearly two decades after the US National Team had played its first game against Sweden in 1916. Contrary to the belief that Mexico’s soccer history dwarfs that of its northern neighbor, El Tri did not play its first official international until 1923.
Nor was Mexico initially any better than the US in international play in its early days. In fact, it was worse. In the 1920s, Mexico played eight official internationals, winning four – but all four of those victories came at home in Mexico City against Guatemala. On its only appearance on the international stage, Mexico’s trip to the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, El Tri was hammered 7-1 by Spain and beaten 3-1 by Chile.
While the United States finished third at the 1930 World Cup, winning two of its three games, Mexico fell to a trio of defeats in the group stage, all by three goal margins: losing 4-1 to France, 3-0 to Chile and 6-3 to Argentina.
Mexico finally beat a team other than Guatemala in March 1934, recording three victories against Cuba in a qualification series for the 1934 World Cup in Italy, all three games played in Mexico City.
Mexico’s win meant that the US and El Tri would meet in Rome only three days before the World Cup kicked off to decide which of the North American nations would take part in the finals tournament, following a particularly quixotic decision by FIFA.
For one of the two countries, it would be a 4,000 mile trip by boat for one game. It was, at least, a heck of a way to start a rivalry.
In the stands, Benito Mussolini watched a game that the US won 4-2 on 24 May 1934, advanced to its second successive World Cup and eliminated Mexico. The American goals came from one man, the first to score a hat-trick in a USA-Mexico game: Aldo “Buff” Donnelli.
Donnelli, from Morgan, Pennsylvania, was making his debut for the American team, and would go on to score against Italy in the World Cup three days later. It was to little avail, as the US lost 7-1 and exited the competition in the first round stage (the World Cup featured a straight elimination format in 1934, for the first and only time so far). Donnelli’s achievement was all the more impressive as his first sport wasn’t even soccer. He had been a prominent college football player, and went on to coach in college and the NFL.
Though Donnelli scored all of the goals against Mexico, he was one cog on what was a talented American team, despite the ensuing heavy defeat to Italy. He played alongside one of the greatest American forwards of all-time, Billy Gonsalves, and multiple veterans of the successful 1930 World Cup team, including Tom Florie, Jimmy Gallagher and George Moorhouse (who was born in Liverpool, and was the first Englishman to play in a World Cup).
“Mexico had a team that was pretty equal to ours,” Donnelli told Tony Cirino in US Soccer Vs The World. “But they were not very quick. They had a very, very deliberate style of attack. There was not a whole lot of imagination; it was a very predictable attack and if you did anything, if you moved a little wee bit, it would put them off.”
Three years later, the United States headed to Mexico for the first time for a three-game series played in September 1937. However, none of the American line-up who had handily defeated Mexico in Italy appeared in the three-game series played in Mexico City. There was no Billy Gonsalves, no Jimmy Gallagher, no Buff Donnelli (in fact, Donnelli never played again for the US after his five goals in two games in Italy).
The series, known as the Castillo Najera Cup after the Mexican ambassador to the United States donated a trophy, began in Mexico City on September 11, 1937 in front of a crowd of 21,000.
There is some doubt as to whether the American team that kicked off that day and played in the series should be officially recognized as the US National Team. The New York Times reported that it was a team of All-Stars taking part, one that soccer historian Tony Cirino notes were “an unofficial US team of American Soccer League players.”
However, US Soccer officially recognizes all three games as internationals. That doesn’t do much good for the Federation’s record book: the US lost the first game 7-2, the second 7-3 and the third 5-1.
The team’s coach, Elmer Schroeder, desperately tried to remedy the situation after the first 7-1 defeat by cabling to New York for reinforcements, requesting in particular Billy Gonsalves and Buff Donnelli. Neither, though, was able to join the team, with only center-half Angel Rodrigues of club team Brooklyn Hispano able to make the trip to Mexico and bolster the American XI.
Before departing Mexico, the US team did at least notch up one victory – not in an international, but with a 4-1 win over an eleven from the Government Physical Education School in Mexico City.
The US did not have its best XI on the field for any of those first three defeats to Mexico. The disorganization that resulted in the nation’s all-star team not featuring its best players such as Gonsalves or Donnelli was a sign of what would become a huge gulf in the two countries’ approach to international play that then dominated most of the rest of the century.
As Mexico poured resources into international soccer, the US stagnated, a situation that took until the 2000s to turn those results around. Even if it’s worth recalling that one Buff Donnelli once stuck a considerable needle into Mexico’s side at the start of this historic rivalry.