When the greatest Pittsburgh athletes are talked about, it’s generally the same familiar names, baseball, football and now hockey players have own the spotlight of our city’s storied sports history, as soccer is often an afterthought.
After a recent visit way back to very early U.S. soccer history, little would many know that we have had a legend right here in own own backyard who played a big part in U.S. Men’s soccer’s early years.
Tonight, the United States Men’s National Soccer Team will be renewing their rivalry with Mexico in a match that will be played in the Rose Bowl before a divided house of over 100,000 fans. The winner will land a coveted berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup to be played in Russia.
In recent decades the rivalry has intensified, as the U.S has caught up to Mexico in the battle for supremacy in the region.
But did you know, that in the first ever meeting in soccer between the U.S and Mexico, it was a man who coached the Pittsburgh Steelers and was one of the most prolific players and coaches at Duquesne, Aldo “Buff” Donelli, led the Stars and Stripes past El Tri in 1934.
As the story goes, Donelli – an American football player turned coach at Duquesne University – 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 game was played as a qualifier to the World Cup played in Italy only a few days later.
Donelli’s accomplishments are legendary.
After the World Cup, though, Donelli returned to the U.S. and jumped back to the gridiron, where he took over as head coach at his alma mater in 1939. Ten years after captaining Duquesne to the first undefeated season in school history, he coached the team to its second undefeated season (8-0-1), where they finished the 1939 season ranked #10 by the Associated Press. The 1939 season was highlighted by one of the school’s biggest wins ever: a 21-13 road win over the nation’s number-one team, the University of Pittsburgh.
After a one-loss season in 1940, Donelli put together another undefeated season – this one more impressive than the last. The 1941 team allowed just 21 points all season and ranked as the nation’s best in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. They finished the season with a #8 ranking in the AP poll. In Donelli’s four seasons as head coach, the Dukes lost just four games.
As if that wasn’t enough, Donelli was actually coaching two teams in 1941: his beloved Duquesne AND the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, then NFL commissioner Elmer Layden forced Donelli to choose between coaching the Steelers and coaching the Dukes. Donelli chose the Dukes.
Donelli returned to the soccer field to play for Morgan Strasser in 1943, leading the team to two U.S. Open Cup finals in 1943 and 1944, where they lost each match to the Brooklyn Hispano FC.
After the 1944 U.S. Open Cup final, Donelli moved back to the NFL, taking over the helm of the Cleveland Rams (who eventually moved to Los Angeles and then St. Louis). He guided the Rams to a 4-6 season after opening the season with three straight wins. Once the 1944 NFL campaign ended, Donelli joined the military service.
Donelli, who lived to be 87, passed away in 1994 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y. in 1954, an honor obviously fitting of such a talented and diverse individual.
Maybe it’s time that the current Pittsburgh soccer community be made aware of this remarkable achievements by a transcendent athlete.
We have to name a street, put a plaque up, have the “Steel Army” sing songs about him. We need more Buff.
As 100 thousand people pack the Rose Bowl tonight, it will be for a rivalry game that can be traced back to a Pittsburgh sports legend.