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USA World Cup History (Part I: 1930 – 1950)


usa 1950 world cup squad

If you’re not too familiar with the USA soccer team, then you’d be forgiven for thinking its World Cup history is all fairly recent. If so, then you’re in for a surprise.

Though there’s a gigantic 40 year gap smack bang in the middle of this story, the USA’s World Cup history begins at exactly the same time as the tournament itself, as they were one of the teams competing in the inaugural 1930 World Cup.

1930 World Cup in Uruguay

usa 1930There’s a myth surrounding the 1930 USA team, that they were made up of former British professionals. Which implies they weren’t really American, and that the USA’s performance in 1930 wasn’t really American. The truth is that there were six British-born players on the team: five Scottish-born and one English-born, but all had emigrated to the United States well before 1930 and were playing professionally in the American Soccer League. Only one of those six had actually played professionally in Britain, but that was Englishman George Moorhouse who’d played just two games for Tranmere Rovers in late 1921 and early 1922. So this was a team of immigrants, not British ringers.

The USA were drawn into a three team group, along with Belgium and Paraguay. They beat Belgium 3-0, with Bart McGhee (one of those Scottish born players) scoring the USA’s first (and then second) ever World Cup goal.

In the second game, USA beat Paraguay 3-0 with a hat-trick from Bert Patenaude, which made the Massachusets-born striker the owner of the first ever World Cup hat-trick. Except it didn’t at the time, because there was some dispute over who had scored the second goal. However, FIFA finally recognized Patenaude as the scorer in 2006, which means he’s now in the record books as the first to score three in one game at a World Cup.

As group winners the US went to the semi-final, where they faced Argentina. The team had earned the nickname “the shot-putters” because of their physical size, but were thumped 6-1 in front of a massive crowd people in Montevideo. Not a great way to exit, but in the absence of a third place playoff, FIFA awarded the USA third place at the 1930 World Cup based on tournament record, which is still the team’s best finish to date, and still the best finish by a team from outside Europe or South America. Part of me wishes the USA had kept “the shot-putters” as a nickname though.

1934 World Cup in Italy

aldo buff donelliOnly 16 teams entered the 1934 World Cup proper, but to be amongst those 16 the USA faced a playoff against Mexico three days before the tournament began. The playoff was in Rome, and so to all intents and purposes was part of the World Cup. Except officially it was a qualifier. Imagine if that still happened? If Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland had been three days before World Cup 2010 began? Craziness.

The US won the game 4-2, with all four goals coming from Aldo “Buff” Donelli (pictured). I can’t pretend to know anything about Donelli, so will quote from this excellent article instead:

Donelli wasn’t picked to start, but on the urging of Billy Gonslaves, the team’s biggest star, ‘Buff’ was included in the starting line-up. Gonslaves knew what no one else did – ‘Buff’ could score. Donelli sliced and diced his way through the Mexican defense, netting all four goals for the U.S. in a 4-2 win that propelled them into the World Cup. Donelli opened the scoring with a goal in the 15th minute, and then broke a 1-1 deadlock with goals in the 30th and 73rd minutes, before topping off the match with an 87th minute strike. Donelli had a chance for five goals, but amazingly missed a penalty kick. By accomplishing the feat, Donelli became the first player in U.S. Soccer history to score four goals in one game.

The actual 1934 World Cup had no group stages. It was lose and you’re out. The US faced hosts Italy in the First Round and were beaten 7-1. Over and out. The only bright spot was that Donelli scored again in that game. He never played international soccer again, but has an impressive scoring record of 5 goals in two games. I don’t see Brian Ching matching that strike rate any time soon.

1950 World Cup in Brazil

1950 borghi and keoughThis is a strange one. Because of the surprise 1-0 win over England, USA’s 1950 World Cup is considered a success. Yet the US actually lost the other two group games 3-1 to Spain and 5-2 to Chile, and finished bottom of the pile. However, that shouldn’t detract from what is one of the great World Cup upsets, now known as either the Miracle on Grass (like the Miracle on Ice, get it?) or the Miracle of Belo Horizonte. The game even has it’s own Wikipedia page.

The basics are as follows. England, finally playing in their first World Cup, considered themselves the best football team on earth. The USA team was made up of semi-professionals and were given no chance against an England team boasting greats like Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen. Yet somehow the USA won 1-0 with a goal from Joe Gaetjens.

Brief, scratchy highlights below, taken from an ITV news segment not long after Charlize Theron had set up an England vs USA rematch at World Cup 2010. The segment also features interviews with USA defender Harry Keough and goalkeeper Frank Borghi (also: great post about Frank Borghi at Culture of Soccer) …

I’m pretty sure that newspapers ignoring the scoreline they’ve been given because they can’t believe that it’s accurate should be the new definition of an upset.

Want to see more of the Hollywood film? It’s titled either “Game of Their Lives” after the Peter Douglas book it was based on, or “The Miracle Match”. Which isn’t nearly as good a title. Trailer below:

You might notice from the trailer that the 1950 USA jerseys bear a resemblance to the USA jerseys for World Cup 2010. And yep, that really is Gavin Rossdale from Bush playing Stan Mortensen and Gerard Butler of “300″ fame playing Frank Borghi. Reviews were mixed.

After that dramatic high point (the actual win over England, not the film) it would be an incredible 40 years before the USA would return to the World Cup. So we’ll continue this story from 1990 onwards in Part II.

- More World Cup team histories

  • matty t

    aldo buff donelli looks like “the situation” from jersey shore

  • Cerberus

    Given up on alphabetical order, eh? ;)

    Just kidding, I’ve been loving the series so far and hope you can manage to get through it before the World Cup kicks off.

  • Andrew

    American soccer team has its own great history. Being among best 16 teams in World Cup 1934 is a real achievement. I think US team will show great play in World Cup 2010!

  • Nick Pirce

    first hat-trick in World Cup history is was a American

  • footballsouvenirs

    I think USA will do well this year, watch out England they may just catch you cold.

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