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Rust issues? Deshaun Watson’s long layoff could be factor

BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Aside from battling the Houston Texans and some fans who are likely to taunt him, Deshaun Watson may have another not-so-visible opponent in his first NFL regular-season game in nearly two years.

Rust. 700 days worth of it.

Watson will make his long-awaited debut Sunday for the Cleveland Browns after serving an 11-game league suspension for alleged sexual misconduct, and it’s not clear how he’ll play after the long layoff.

His last regular-season game was Jan. 3, 2021, before his relationship with the team that drafted him crumbled, before he demanded the Texans trade him and before two dozen women accused him of lewd behavior during massages. He has denied the accusations, and settled lawsuits.

Watson’s return could be spectacular, shaky or something in between.

“Going back to playing quarterback after two years is tough,” Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II said. “Obviously he’s been working out and things like that, but it’s so much different getting out there and actually getting those live reps.

“But I applaud him, I salute him and we’re going to be right behind him the whole, entire way.”

The last time he played, Watson passed for 365 yards, three touchdowns and posted a 115.9 passer rating for Houston in a 41-38 loss to Tennessee. That game must seem like a lifetime ago for the 27-year-old, who admitted he’s not even sure what to expect.

“We will have to see Sunday, honestly,” Watson said this week in his first comments since August. “It might take time or it might not take time.”

Watson likened his return to “riding a bike.” But he might need training wheels back on for a bit.

His readiness is a legitimate concern, heightened by his rough outing in Cleveland’s exhibition opener in August. But Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney watched his teammate ramp up his activity over the past few weeks, and is confident Watson will look like himself.

“He still can sling it,” said Clowney, who played with Watson for two seasons in Houston and re-signed with the Browns to be with him again. “I know he’s a little nervous. It’s been two years, a big let off from two years.

“But I feel like he’ll go out there and do his thing.”

When last on the field, Watson was among the game’s top quarterbacks, leading the league with 4,823 yards passing in 2020, finishing with 33 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions.

His mobility outside the pocket makes him equally dangerous, and Watson’s running ability will allow Browns coach Kevin Stefanski to delve deeper into his playbook — run-pass options come to mind.

That may not happen right away, and Stefanski said there’s only one way for Watson to combat any potential rust: “You’ve just got to trust in your preparation, trust in what you do in the meeting room, individual period, all the practice reps you get.”

Watson worked with a private QB coach during the early stages of his suspension, when he was banned from the team facility, and has practiced with the Browns for the past two weeks. This week, he took over from Jacoby Brissett and was back with the starters.

“He’s getting a lot of the reps and trying to get extra reps with some of the guys that just build that trust and build that feeling where he knows how guys coming in and out of breaks and where they’re gonna be in the route,” quarterbacks coach Drew Petzing said. “Certainly trying to push that over these last couple weeks has been big.”

There’s also the contact factor. Watson hasn’t been hit, but Stefanski downplayed the notion his quarterback might not be ready for it.

“He’s played a lot of football in his life,” Stefanski said. “It’s part of the game. … He’s got his job to do.”

The Browns (4-7) may need to run the table to make the playoffs. And they’ll have the man in whom they invested $230 million at the helm of that push.

Judging by the vibe in Cleveland’s locker room Friday, the Browns are braced for a show.

“Last time I saw him, he was electric,” star defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We’ve all been a part of it or seen it in some way, shape or form. He’s very talented and there’s a little bit of an excitement building.

“I’m sure there will be a little bit of taking it slow, trying to get those short throws, easy throws in and getting his confidence up — or those runs. And then once he feels warm, and feels like he can make those bigger throws, his confidence will come back pretty quickly and he’s going to start airing it out.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Source: https://apnews.com/article/houston-texans-cleveland-browns-nfl-sports-8a881ef272732bd05ca9a0036ddf6ba4

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Report: NWSL to expand in Boston, Utah and California

The National Women’s Soccer League is close to expanding by three teams, which will be in Boston, Utah and the San Francisco area, according to a Friday report in the Wall Street Journal.

The women’s pro league previously indicated it would add at least two teams by 2024. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported that the franchises in northern California and Utah are set to start play next year, with Boston to join at a later date.

The NWSL did not confirm the report in a statement Saturday to The Associated Press, saying: “We remain engaged in our expansion process and are excited about our prospects. When we have news to share, we will do so.”

The NWSL has 12 teams, after Angel City in Los Angeles and the San Diego Wave joined the league last year.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that the Boston and Bay Area groups will pay about $50 million in franchise fees. The Utah team will pay a reduced fee because of a previous agreement struck when the Utah Royals folded in the 2020 season.

Before the NWSL draft earlier this month, league commissioner Jessica Berman said it would be “somewhere between days and months, more like weeks, when we’ll be in a position to share information” about an expansion.

“What I can say is that I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities we have in front of us,” she added.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Former MVP Candace Parker to sign with champion Aces

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Former two-time MVP Candace Parker announced on social media Saturday that she would sign with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces.

Parker spent the past two seasons playing for her hometown Sky, leading Chicago to the WNBA championship in 2021. She also won the 2016 title playing for the Los Angeles Sparks.

She posted on Instagram that Chicago would always be her home, but “my family’s home is on the west coast.

“To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

The free-agent signing period begins Wednesday, and the Aces can’t comment until then.

Parker, a 6-foot-4 forward/center, adds to an already loaded lineup that includes reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, who also won the league’s top award in 2020. Wilson also was last season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Chelsea Gray was MVP of the WNBA Finals and Kelsey Plum MVP of the All-Star Game. Wilson, Plum and Jackie Young were All-Star starters.

Parker and Gray were teammates on Los Angeles’ 2016 title team.

The Aces traded one of their key pieces, two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby, to the Sparks on Jan. 21, creating speculation Las Vegas was creating salary cap room to sign a big-name player.

Parker, the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year and the 2016 Finals MVP, certainly fits that bill. Even at 36 last season, she averaged 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists for the Sky.

“Candace has done so much for our franchise in her time here,” Chicago coach and general manager James Wade said in a statement. “I understand her reasons for wanting to be closer with her immediate family. We wish her nothing but the best. She will always be a part of the Sky family. We will celebrate her time here as she deserves.”

Losing her is a big blow to the Sky, who made the semifinals in last season’s playoffs before losing in five games to the Connecticut Sun. Kahleah Copper is the only starter under contract for next season, so the Sky could head into a rebuild.

“I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to win a championship in my hometown and parade down the same streets I watched the Bulls parade down as a young girl first falling in love with the game of basketball,” Parker posted.

Parker joins the Aces at a time the Women’s National Basketball Players Association said it wanted that organization investigated regarding allegations that Hamby made after being traded. She posted on Instagram she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” because she is pregnant with her second child.

The Aces still have not commented on Hamby’s allegations.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Estrada, Hofstra end No. 18 Charleston’s 20-game win streak

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — This season, Hofstra has been a one-man show. This time, Aaron Estrada had some help as the Pride ended the nation’s longest winning streak.

Estrada scored 25 points, but just two in the second half, while Darlinestone Dubar added 18 as Hofstra had four players in double figures to knock off No. 18 College of Charleston 85-81 on Saturday — ending the Cougars’ 20-game win streak.

“That’s a really big for our program,” Hofstra coach Speedy Claxton said. “To beat a nationally ranked team on their home court when they’ve got it rolling like they do speaks volumes about our kids.”

Claxton saw a team effort to take down the hottest team in the country.

“It wasn’t just Aaron,” Claxton said. “He had a great first half, but we had other guys step up and make baskets or get rebounds when we really needed them.”

The loss ended Charleston’s spotless run that began after losing to then-top-ranked North Carolina on Nov. 11.

Hofstra, the CAA’s leader in field-goal shooting, used that to move past Charleston in the second half as it made 18 of 32 attempts. The Pride led 76-69 with 6:10 to play before the Cougars cut it to two points on Ryan Larson’s foul shots with 2:02 to play.

But Charleston managed just two free throws after that and missed all four 3-pointers they tried.

This is the second straight season the Pride have beaten a Top 25 team. A year ago, Hofstra defeated then No. 24 Arkansas 89-81. The Pride’s only other victory against a Top 25 team came against Southern Illinois in 1976.

Hofstra (15-8, 8-2 Colonial Athletic Association) beat the Cougars (21-2, 9-1) at their own game — 3-point shooting. The Pride were 11 of 22 from 3-point range and overall shot 56 percent from the floor in the second half.

Estrada, who had 23 points in the opening half, shredded the Cougars defense at will. Estrada was 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

“Estrada is a great player, hit a bunch of tough shots, especially in the first half,” Charleston coach Pat Kelsey said. “Hofstra is a very, very talented team. It’s not just Estrada. They were better than us tonight.”

Then Estrada took over. The CAA’s leading scorer at 21.1 points a game scored 16 of the next 24 points for the Pride, including four 3-pointers.

Ante Brzovic’s dunk at the buzzer gave the Cougars a 46-44 advantage at halftime.

Tyler Thomas had 17 points and eight rebounds for Hofstra.

Brzovic finished with 18 points to lead the Cougars.

BIG PICTURE

Hofstra: The Pride are on a roll in 2023. winning seven of their past eight games, including three in a row.

College of Charleston: The Cougars chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament at-large bid took a major blow with the loss to the Pride. Despite having the nation’s longest win streak for three months, Charleston will most likely have to win the CAA Tournament in March to advance to the NCAAs.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The Cougars’ 20-game win streak wasn’t the only streak to end on Saturday. College of Charleston played 14 of its first 23 games at TD Arena to start the season and were a perfect 13-0 at home before facing the Pride. Charleston’s 13-game home win streak included three wins in the Charleston Classic. The Cougars became the first mid-major program to win the ESPN event, beating Virginia Tech 77-75 in the championship game. Charleston will finish the season playing four of their final eight games on the road.

POLL POSITION

Charleston’s first loss in nearly three months might drop the Cougars from the national rankings. They have been part of the last four rankings, entering at No. 23 before reaching No. 18 this past week.

UP NEXT

Hofstra returns home to play Towson on Thursday night.

College of Charleston starts a two-game road trip at Drexel on Thursday night.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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