On May 27, 1934 the U.S. lined up against Italy for the first time. Most significantly it was the first match for the U.S. in the FIFA World Cup of that year, but for me the story of the tournament for the U.S. was the player who scored against Italy, Aldo ‘Buff’ Donelli.
A native of the Pittsburgh area, Buff was an outstanding forward with good speed and a strong shot. He had played for several teams in the area, most prominently the Morgan Soccer Club. He was invited to participate in the tryout matches for the World Cup team in Philadelphia and New York in early May. After three selection games in the U.S., Donelli was chosen for the team, but his starting position was not secure. His amateur status was looked down upon by many of the American Soccer League pros in the squad
His play in the warm-up games, however, caused the most prominent player of the era, Adelino ‘Billy’ Gonsalves to encourage team manager Elmer Schroeder and trainer David Gould to include him in the starting line-up. Maybe “encourage” is too weak a word; as the story goes Gonsalves said, in effect, “I’ll play only if he plays!” Because the U.S. had filed late for the World Cup, the were required to play a qualifying match against Mexico to enter the World Cup. On May 24, 1934, behind Buff’s 4 goals and missed penalty, the U.S. progressed into the World Cup proper with a 4 – 2 win.
The World Cup then was an elimination tournament with 16 teams entered – it was win and progress, or lose and go home. In its first round match the U.S. met the hosts and heavy favorites Italy. The Italians ran out a 3 – 0 lead at half, before Donelli pulled one back early in the second half. The Italians followed with 4 more and finished the day with a 7 – 1 win.
Donelli’s two game U.S. National Team career came to an end after that match, but his strike rate of 2.5 goals/game is the best in U.S. Men’s Team history.
Donelli was not just a soccer player. While he continued playing soccer during his college years (1926-1930), he lined up in the backfield for the Duquesne University gridiron football team as well. He was captain of the team in the 1929 season when they went undefeated (9-0-1). He would return to the campus as its football coach for four years (1939 – 1942) coaching undefeated teams in 1939 (8 – 0 – 1) and 1941 (9 – 0 – 0). In 1941 he also coached the sputtering Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL, but, after 5 games, forced to choose between the assignments, decided to remain with his alma mater.
While coaching at Duquesne he continued his soccer playing career with the Morgan club, sponsored by the local Strasser Jewelers. He played in the 1943 and 1944 U.S. Open Cup finals. Brooklyn Hispano, backstopped by Hall of Fame goalkeeper Gene Olaff, won both those matches.
After service in the Navy during World War II, he would go on to a long coaching career in football including stints as head coach at Boston University, which honors a senior each year with the Aldo ‘Buff’ Donelli Leadership Award, and Columbia University, where his name adorns the intercollegiate athletics weight room.
Donelli was born on July 22, 1907 and passed away on August 9, 1994.
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